59 School Street, Box 1310, Edgartown MA 02539 - 508.627.4441
Martha's Vineyard Museum MV Museum



Henri Lepaute

Paris, France

Glass, cast iron, brass, steel

Gift of the U.S. Coast Guard

The United States had been independent for only twenty-three years when President John Adams authorized the first Gay Head lighthouse. It was an acknowledgment of the importance of the shipping route through Vineyard Sound and a recognition of the navigational hazards that lay in the narrow passage between the Elizabeth Islands and Martha's Vineyard.

The lighthouse itself was and is subject to different hazards. Constant erosion of the cliffs upon which it stands requires it to be periodically relocated or replaced.

The current brick lighthouse replaced the original wooden structure in 1856. At its top was installed a first-order Fresnel lens, the largest size made. This very lens had been exhibited at the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where it was awarded the Gold Medal. Its hundreds of prisms, arranged in a beehive shape, refracted and reflected light from an oil-burning lamp, directing it into a single beam that could be seen twenty miles away. It was a scientific wonder of its day, the invention of French optical engineer Augustin Fresnel (1788–1827). The Fresnel became the standard lens in many lighthouses around the world, with fourth-order lenses formerly in the Edgartown, Cape Poge, and East Chop lighthouses. A fourth-order Fresnel lens is still operating in the West Chop lighthouse. This first-order Fresnel lens shone from the Gay Head Light until 1952, when it was replaced by a high-intensity electric beacon.

A succession of keepers and assistant keepers was required to maintain the Fresnel lens and keep it running smoothly over the years. Charles W. Vanderhoop served as the principal keeper from 1920 to 1933. His son, Charles Vanderhoop Jr., was born in the keeper's house that stood next to the lighthouse. In an oral history interview from 2000 he recalled the precision of the lens mechanism: "The light and the lens and the thing it turned on weighed roughly two tons. To show you how well-balanced it was—you could push it around with a finger. Two tons."

With thanks to the following individuals who have adopted this object for one year:
R. Wayne Hebden
Steven and Susanne Adams