Martha’s Vineyard is privileged to have five lighthouses on its shores and a sixth at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum campus in Edgartown. Two more afar can be seen from the Island, sometimes even more at night.
This weekend all the Island’s lighthouses will be celebrated in what is being called the Martha’s Vineyard Lighthouse Challenge. Visitors from around the country who make a habit of visiting lighthouses are making a special trip to the Island to share their affection for these centuries old beacons of the waterfront night.
Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, said on Tuesday that already 100 people had registered for the weekend. For a fee of $95, enthusiasts get a Vineyard lighthouse passport which they can get stamped at each of the lighthouses. Participants also receive special wristbands for admission and transportation to the lighthouses. There is a commemorative T-shirt, too.
The chamber, together with the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, are putting on the three-day gala observance. It begins this afternoon with the formal rededication of the Edgartown lighthouse at 4 p.m.
All the Island’s lighthouses will be open for viewing, from The Trustees of Reservations’ Cape Pogue Lighthouse on Chappaquiddick, to the museum’s Gay Head Lighthouse in Aquinnah. The East and West Chop lighthouses make for a total of five.
The old Fresnel lens, a rarity in this age electronic, also will be open for viewing on the museum’s campus in Edgartown. Originally it was at the Gay Head Lighthouse. The lens and machinery date back to 1855, when lamps were lit by whale oil. Though the structure that holds the lens isn’t really a lighthouse, it looks like one.
This afternoon, the challenge begins at 4 p.m. with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Edgartown Lighthouse, where for the first time the lighthouse will be officially opened to the public. Visitors inside will discover a new spiral staircase which was added last winter. Though the staircase looks like it always belonged there, it is entirely new. Prior to the restoration work, the structure inside was coated in peeling lead paint, and only a narrow, treacherous ladder gave access to the top. The restoration work involved considerable sandblasting, the replacement of many rusty parts, and a complete repainting of the structure.
The ceremony will include speeches by Edward (Peter) Vincent Jr., an Edgartown attorney and member of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum board of directors, and the museum’s executive director Keith Gorman.
There will be a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. at the museum, open all who join the challenge. Another special gathering for those who participated in the challenge will take place at the museum on Sunday.
“This is not a new concept,” said Ms. Gardella. “This has been done with great success around the country. We know that in New Jersey they have a lighthouse challenge that attracts thousands of people.”
Some of the chamber’s member businesses will offer special discounts to those who join.
Ms. Gardella attributed the idea of bringing the challenge to the Vineyard to Holly Alaimo, who runs the Dragonfly Gallery in Oak Bluffs. She came up with the idea more than a year ago, based on what she had heard from friends in New Jersey.
“I think we are trying to have something meaningful during this slow period between Memorial Day and summer. I really think this is great,” said Mrs. Alaimo. “Eco-tourism and educational tourism is good for this Island. Celebrating what is our history, and what is great here is good for the community.”
Those registered for the challenge come from as far north as Maine and as far south as New Jersey.
For Martha’s Vineyard Museum, this is an occasion to celebrate the Island’s maritime heritage. The federal government, in a cost-cutting measure years ago, stopped funding the care and maintenance of lighthouses. Lighthouses are no longer the critically important aids to navigation they were years ago. The Coast Guard is committed here only to the West Chop lighthouse; today, the museum takes charge of maintaining the structures.
The towns of Oak Bluffs and Edgartown helped the museum restore both the Edgartown and East Chop lighthouses. Town and state funds from the Community Preservation Act put significant money into the $140,000 restoration of the East Chop Lighthouse, and $250,000 into the Edgartown Lighthouse. The work was done by Campbell Construction Co. over the past year. Additional masonry work was done to the Gay Head Lighthouse last winter to address a crack in the wall.
Those Island lighthouses which are open to the public have keepers. Richard Skidmore of Aquinnah and his wife Joan LeLacheur have been giving tours at the Gay Head light for 18 years. He knows the stories and shares them readily with visitors who go to the light for sunset tours. The lighthouse is the Island’s tallest, rising 54 feet above the ground.
Bob Hammett of Oak Bluffs is the keeper for the East Chop lighthouse, and for years he has given tours.
Now that the Edgartown Lighthouse will be accessible to the public, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum has hired two new lighthouse keepers. They are Alex Friedman and David Savage, both of Edgartown. The two men are maritime enthusiasts and will share the duties of making sure the lighthouse is open and accessible in the late afternoons.
Anticipating a busy lighthouse summer with new enthusiasm, the museum has reissued an old book called Shoreline Sentinels: The Lighthouses of Martha’s Vineyard. The 42-page book costs $12.
Lighthouses are a treasure to the communities where they reside. Doreen Berson is the co-chairman of the New Jersey Lighthouse Society and their annual lighthouse challenge. She was a volunteer the first year they did it. “There were 11 lighthouses. In that first year we had 342 complete the tour and 1,500 who were involved,” she said. Last October when they held the event there were 2,500 who were involved. “It was the best year we ever had,” she said.
“The Lighthouse Challenge is a great way for people to learn about lighthouses and the importance they played in maritime history. Even their beauty is a draw. That is what got me involved. They are beautiful buildings,” Ms. Berson said, adding: “I got married at a lighthouse.”
The Vineyard’s lighthouses are two in Edgartown: Cape Pogue Lighthouse on Chappy and Edgartown Lighthouse. In Oak Bluffs there is the East Chop Lighthouse. In Tisbury there is the West Chop Lighthouse. In Aquinnah there is the Gay Head Lighthouse. The lighthouses that can be seen from ashore the Island )include Nobska Point and Tarpaulin Cove lighthouses. There may be others on the Cape that glow at night.
Ms. Gardella said this year’s first lighthouse challenge might not be a big deal compared to other places. But the initial interest already signals an opportunity for bigger and better challenges ahead.
The focus on lighthouses doesn’t stop. On Tuesday, June 24, at 5 p.m., the museum will host a talk on lighthouses by Mr. Gorman.
The lighthouses will be open through the summer as of this weekend.
Edgartown lighthouse will be open Thursdays from 11 a.m. through sunset; from Friday to Monday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
East Chop lighthouse will be open Sundays for Sunset tours.
The Gay Head lighthouse will be open Friday through Sundays for sunset tours.