Whether or not the con troversy over tearing down Henry Beetle Hough’s historic house is resolved, there is still a need for the Island to honor the memory of this conservation activist in a way commensurate with his role in preserving our lands, beaches and monuments. Adding his name to the official designation of the Edgartown Lighthouse, perhaps calling it the Henry Beetle Hough Memorial, would accomplish this. Without Henry Hough, there would be no Edgartown light, and generations would be unaware of the beauty and history we now all enjoy.
Mr. Hough saved the lighthouse not once but twice. This achievement ranks with his preservation of Sheriff’s Meadow and Cedar Tree Neck, and his leadership over many decades in getting others to support the conservation cause.
A quarter mile out in the harbor, the lighthouse became an attraction for townspeople and visitors as soon as it was built in 1828, with its whale oil fueled light, the fog bell and the walkway over the harbor. The wooden trestle, later replaced by rocks and a sand path, was called the bridge of sighs in the early days, because women would walk out as far as they could to say farewell to husbands and friends on the whaling vessels heading out for voyages that could last years. Later, visitors went out to the lighthouse at night to see the phosphorescent glow of sea creatures alongside the causeway and the bright points of light coming from the windows of captains’ houses lining the harbor.
In 1938, the Lighthouse Service of the Department of Commerce decided to demolish the structure, a keeper’s house with the lantern atop it, and replace it with a prefabricated steel skeleton tower like those at airports. George Eaton, the district superintendent of the service, called it a “rat-infested box” and a waste of government money. The new tower, he said, would save a thousand dollars a year in upkeep. Mr. Hough rallied the Island’s artists, the members of its garden club, the fishermen and the yacht club. In weekly editorials, he praised “the historic and scenic qualities of the light,” and called for a referendum on keeping it. Three hundred and one townspeople voted in favor; not one vote was cast against. Superintendent Eaton, in Boston, thought the townspeople had a point, but from Washington, the commissioner of lighthouses, Harold King, countered that no more federal money could be spent on “the types of structures which were necessary in a former age.”
But in the end, the service and townspeople agreed to a compromise. The old building would go, but its replacement would be the 19th century Essex Light, which the service had eliminated (over the protests of the locals) from Ipswich, north of Boston. The sixty-year-old structure, made of bolted cast iron sections, was dismantled and barged to Edgartown. The following year, Superintendent King, approaching Edgartown by sea, told Mr. Hough that he and the townspeople had been right: “The white tower of the light is good for both navigation and beauty.”
Thirty-six years after Edgartown got its new/old traditional lighthouse, the harborscape was challenged again. Developers surprised Edgartown with a bold plan to fill in the wetlands between the Harbor View hotel and the lighthouse and build two houses and a tennis court to replace the pond and salt marsh that were regular stopovers for migrating ducks and shorebirds. After the town conservation commission approved the construction, Mr. Hough and his allies appealed to the Army Corps of Engineers, backed by a petition from townspeople pointing out that the development would destroy the historic view of the harbor entrance. The fight lasted 10 years, but in the end, the wetlands, and Nantucket Sound’s approach to Edgartown, remained open for all to enjoy.
Since that time, volunteers like William Marks have done restoration work on the lighthouse; Craig Dripps, Matthew Stackpole and others from the Martha’s Vineyard Museum have raised preservation money, and town Community Preservation Act funding has paid for extensive repairs.
The vistas to harbor and Sound remain. The lighthouse still serves a function that its builders may not have contemplated but its defenders, particularly Henry Hough, well knew. It’s a place, Mr. Hough wrote, between the land and the sea, “the kind of solitary outpost where the greatest product, peace of mind, is free to all.”
Commemorating Henry Hough as part of the Edgartown Lighthouse name would show the gratitude of Islanders and visitors alike to the man who preserved that solitary outpost. It would help keep his memory alive if and when the house he lived in can no longer serve as a reminder of all he did for the Island.
Donald Shanor, with his wife Constance, is working on a book about the Island lighthouses. They live in Edgartown.