Gay Head Light, ca. 1884
Lighthouses define the character of Martha’s Vineyard. They guide people from land and sea to the same shorelines, sheltering them under beacons of home.
 
Today, the Island’s lighthouses are deteriorating. Bricks are crumbling in the breeze, and iron is flaking away in the salt air. Before long, these landmarks could be reduced to brittle, rotting shells.
 
Fortunately, a group of Islanders has mounted an effort to save the lighthouses and restore their former grandeur. The Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society has made a commitment to restore the Edgartown, East Chop and Gay Head lights within the next couple of years.
 
Chairman of lighthouse restoration Craig Dripps and artist Ray Ellis have collaborated in a plan to raise enough money to begin renovations as soon as possible. They are selling limited edition prints of watercolors featuring each of the three lighthouses.
 
“I’m happy to be a part of this project, and I hope everyone will support what I think is an important part of the Island,” remarked Mr. Ellis. “I realized that lighthouses have always been a big part of my love of the coast, and I realized that if you take the lighthouses away from Martha’s Vineyard, you’ve destroyed so much of the character and uniqueness of the Island.
 
“I was so excited about these watercolors. Watercolors are not forgiving; once you start one, you cannot change it. But whether it was fate or what, they just seemed to flow. I’m happy to report that all three originals sold last week.”
 
The notion of restoring the Vineyard’s lighthouses began more than a decade ago, when the United States Coast Guard was forced to scale back its property maintenance programs.
 
“Back in the mid-1980s, due to budget cuts, the Coast Guard decided no longer to maintain the various lighthouses,” explained Mr. Dripps. “In fact, they actually considered replacing them with aluminum towers. At that time, William Marks created the Vineyard Environmental Research Institute, and from 1985 to 1993 he initiated the process of maintaining and supervising the Edgartown, East Chop and Gay Head lighthouses. In 1993 the responsibility passed to the historical society.
 
“Basically, the Coast Guard maintains the light room, but the community would have to assume responsibility of maintaining the structure. The Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society has made a commitment to the community and to itself to take over the three lighthouses and bring them up to snuff.”
 
As a glance inside will reveal, every one of the buildings is in need of immediate attention.
 
“From a distance the three of them look fine, but when you get inside you realize they have some major problems that are chronic and ongoing and need to be corrected,” said Mr. Dripps. “All metalwork, windows and glass need repairing and replacing. The Edgartown and East Chop lights are of the same design, in that they’re both cast iron. The elements have been difficult on this. We’ve found rusting problems and moisture problems.
 
“The brick in the entire Gay Head Lighthouse, most of which dates back to 1856, needs repointing -- the removal of old mortar and replacement of it both inside and out. The lighthouses all have leaky roofs, and there’s standing water in the bottom of the Edgartown light. The windows there are Lexan, which is bowed and bent, and vulnerable to all the elements.”
 
In addition to restoring these structures, the historical society plans to open them to the public on a regular basis so people can enjoy their commanding views and appreciate their history.
 
“One of the biggest things we want to do is put in a circular stairwell in the Edgartown Lighthouse. Right now there’s only a 40-foot ladder that goes straight up,” Mr. Dripps said. “We’d also like to use interns from the historical society and volunteers from the community to come and manage the lighthouse when it’s open during the day.
 
“The first lighthouse to appear on Martha’s Vineyard was authorized by President Adams in 1799, and wouldn’t it be great to celebrate the 200th birthday of lighthouses on the Vineyard with a project that is well under way or finished? What we’re saying is that if people care about lighthouses, now is the time to step forward and do their own little part. These prints are a good investment.
 
“We want to get moving, because these lighthouses have to be dealt with. What we have to do is raise between $175,000 and $200,000 to begin work. Nothing’s going to happen until we have this money in hand.”
 
Limited edition, signed prints of the three lighthouses can be purchased at the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society in Edgartown, at Kennedy Studios in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven and at the Freewheeling Framer in Vineyard Haven. The prints come unframed and cost $250 each.