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Treasured Beacon THE EDGARTOWN HARBOR LIGHT

The Edgartown Light stands perched at the mouth of the harbor, watching over beachgoers and sailors alike. Today, it seems as though the conical iron tower has always been there, and it is hard to imagine Edgartown without it. Eighty years ago, however, the lighthouse looked very different and its fate was the subject of intense controversy.

In this exhibit, learn the story of the lighthouse's transformation and how one iconic Island landmark gave way for another.

October 15, 1828 - Keeper Jeremiah Pease lights the Edgartown light for the first time

The original lighthouse, built in 1828, featured a white light shining from a lantern room atop a two-story keeper’s house. Built on an artificial island a quarter mile out to sea, the lighthouse was originally accessible only by boat, but two years later a wooden causeway was built to connect the lighthouse to the shore. The causeway, known as the Bridge of Sighs, quickly became a popular place to take an evening stroll.

Old Edgartown Harbor Light, c. 1886

This is the earliest photograph of the Edgartown Harbor Light in the Museum’s collection. It shows the old light and keeper’s house before it had undergone many of its later alterations and additions.

The bridge out to the light house was repaired and rebuilt several times over the years and a stone breakwater was added underneath it. In the second half of the nineteenth century it became a popular place for "promenade and pleasure."

View of old Edgartown Lighthouse from the water, 1914

This photograph, taken from the water, shows many of the additions that were made to the old keeper’s house, including the large shed added in 1892 (left side) and the fog bell added in 1908 (right side).

Compare it to the photo below to see just how many change had been made in the previous few decades.

Old Edgartown Harbor Light, 1892
July 1938 - U.S. Lighthouse Service announces plans to replace existing lighthouse with a steel skeleton tower

In 1938, when the U.S. Lighthouse Service announced plans to replace the existing light and keeper’s house with an automatic atop a steel skeleton tower, locals rallied in protest. While the government saw no use for the old structure, which one official called a “rat infested box,” Islanders and summer visitors were unwilling to see it go. They argued that the tower and bridge held great scenic and historic value and the harbor would not be the same without them.

The light house service proposed replacing the Edgartown Harbor Light with more austere automated structure, similar to the type of tower that stood at the end of the Oak Bluffs jetty at the time (shown in this sketch published in the Vineyard Gazette).

August 1, 1938 - In a 301-0 vote, Edgartown residents express their preference for the existing lighthouse over the proposed skeleton structure
August 8, 1938 - Lighthouse Service decides to proceed with original plan despite local protests

Coverage by the Vineyard Gazette from the summer of '38 shows the intense back and forth that occurred between Islanders and government officials.

In this article Islanders voiced their initial outrage at the project, concerned that the replacement tower would be ugly and not work as well. After being reassured that the actual light would be taller and brighter than the existing one, and therefor be a better aid to navigation, locals continued to object to the change, arguing that the old lighthouse held great historic and scenic value.

August 12, 1938 - The chief engineer of the Lighthouse Service is sent to Edgartown to look into the issue further
August 16, 1938 - A compromise emerges: A lighthouse from Ipswich, scheduled to be decommissioned, will be moved to Edgartown

Official Sketch of Proposed Edgartown Harbor Lighthouse, August 23, 1938

After a series of miscommunications and continued objections to a skeleton tower by locals, an alternative plan was agreed upon. The town would receive a picturesque white tower, similar to the East Chop Light. This watercolor sketch was published in the Vineyard Gazette to reassure locals and show what the new tower would look like.

"Capt." Benjamin N. Ellsworth standing in front of what is now the Edgartown Lighthouse at its original location in Ipswich, MA
September 21, 1938 - Hurricane damages the Edgartown Light’s bridge and stone foundation

Hurricane damage to the Edgartown Lighthouse, 1938

In September, the old lighthouse weathered its final big storm, the 1938 Hurricane. Damage was caused to the bridge and lighthouse foundation, delay the renovation plans slightly.

The hurricane did its most significant damage to the base the lighthouse stood on, which lost several large rocks on the harbor side. Outgoing keeper Frank Vidler, who was already preparing for his departure, had to act quickly to rescue his packed-up belongings from the storage shed on that side as the foundation gave way below it. The town awoke the morning after the storm to see the outer edge of the shed hanging in mid-air.

Old Edgartown Lighthouse shortly before demolition, October 1938

This is the last image of the old Edgartown Harbor Light in the Museum’s collection. On the right you can see where the ruins of the old storage shed have been removed. In March, the foundation was repaired in preparation for the new lighthouse's arrival.

December 1938 - Old lighthouse is demolished

In April 1939 the disassembled lighthouse arrived by barge from Ipswich. Over the next month the tower was reassembled and a red lamp installed in its lantern to light the way into Edgartown Harbor. Upon the lighthouse's completion, commentators in the Vineyard Gazette noted, "The tower stood out against the blue water and seemed to be the source of considerable pride and satisfaction, even in the bosoms of those who fought to the last for the preservation of the former lighthouse."

June 15, 1939 - New lighthouse is illuminated for the first time
New and Old Sentinels of Edgartown Harbor Waters

After the new tower was completed and had received a fresh coat of white paint, the Vineyard Gazette published this pair of photographs with the following caption: “At the left the graceful white tower which formerly stood at Ipswich and which has replaced the old lighthouse and keeper’s dwelling, torn down last fall after the government decreed that progress, in the way of an automatic light, must be accepted. The first plan, to replace the old house with a skeleton steel tower, was given up in deference to the wishes of the town.”

View of Edgartown Lighthouse from the north, c. 1940

This photograph shows the new lighthouse shortly after it was constructed. Like its predecessor, it stands alone on an isolated island, accessible only by bridge. Over the next couple of decades that would begin to change.

c. 1950 - A stone breakwater, built parallel to and just north of the bridge, begins to trap sand, forming what will become Lighthouse Beach
By 1953, when this photo was taken, the new stone breakwater built parallel to the bridge had lead to a barrier beach beginning to develop around the base of the lighthouse.

Aerial photograph of Edgartown Lighthouse and Harbor, c. 1960

Over the years, hurricanes and winter storms have pounded the shores of Martha’s Vineyard, causing sands to shift and shorelines to be reshaped. Since the 1950s a barrier beach has gradually grown up around the lighthouse. This photograph, taken from a plane, shows the state of Lighthouse Beach over a decade into this process. Today, the beach extends around 300 feet further to the east.

1970 - Edgartown acquires Lighthouse Beach
1987 - Edgartown Harbor Light is added to the National Register of Historic Places

Over the years, the lighthouse has undergone several rounds of updates and restoration working. In 1988, it was refurbished and received a fresh coat of paint. The historic fourth-order Fresnel lens in its tower was replace by a solar-powered modern optic lens in 1990. Further updates were made in 2007, when a spiral staircase was added, allowing the lighthouse to be opened to the public for the first time.

July 14, 2001 Children’s Memorial dedicated at the lighthouse

The Martha's Vineyard Museum has acted as stewards of the Lighthouse since 1993. Shortly after the Coast Guard declared the lighthouse no longer "mission-critical" in 2012 ownership of the lighthouse transferred to the town of Edgartown, with the Museum continuing to act as stewards.

Children's Memorial, c. 2108

Treasured Beacon: The Edgartown Harbor Light was on display at the Martha's Vineyard Museum from October 28, 2019 through February 28, 2020.

All photographs in the exhibit are from the collection of the Martha's Vineyard Museum. Newspaper clippings are courtesy of the Vineyard Gazette.