People love lighthouses. When you enter the word into Google's search engine, 44,800,000 sites pop up. There are lighthouse magazines, magnets and sweatshirts. The New England region even has its own fan group dedicated to the structure - New England Lighthouse Lovers. "Lighthouses are modern day castles," said Craig Dripps, president of the East Chop Association. "They have a sense of magic and history. They hold secrets."
Martha's Vineyard has five lighthouses. This year, two will celebrate big birthdays. The Gay Head lighthouse, the Island's oldest and once ranked as the ninth most important lighthouse in the country, will turn 150. On Thursday evening, the East Chop lighthouse will celebrate its 130th.
The East Chop light stands atop Oak Bluff's highest protruding bluff, known as Telegraph Hill because of the telegraph station that existed on the spot before the lighthouse. In 1869, Capt. Silas Daggett built a lighthouse there to help guide sailors entering Holmes Hole (present day Vineyard Haven). The original structure burned down two years later, but Captain Daggett rebuilt it. He operated both structures privately for seven years, accepting donations to aid in the upkeep.
In 1875, the government purchased the property from Mr. Daggett, explaining that a more substantial lighthouse was needed. The present cast-iron structure was built the following year. All three structures that have stood on that spot, 39 feet above sea level, have played an important part in Island history.
Vineyard Sound and Nantucket Sound once saw more ships sail through them than any other place in the world except the English Channel. "During the whaling era, that area was critical to the safety of merchants, whalers and sailors," said Rob Hammett, the East Chop lighthouse keeper. "This era enabled this Island to thrive."
Mr. Hammett, who lives about a two-minute walk from the lighthouse, is trying to improve the accessibility of the lighthouse and educate the general public about its history. For the past several years, the lighthouse has been open to the public on Sundays from mid-June to mid-September. Tours are offered from one and a half hours before sunset to a half hour afterwards.
Since taking over as lighthouse keeper in February 2005, Mr. Hammett has made a concerted effort to bring more Island schoolchildren into the lighthouse, asking school groups to contact him to set up appointments. He has also expanded the historical artifacts on display inside the lighthouse. "When you sit there, there is nothing to tell you where you are sitting," he said. "I want people to understand what that lighthouse did and still does today."
The Martha's Vineyard Museum (formerly the historical society) holds the lease on the East Chop lighthouse, as well as the ones for Gay Head and Edgartown. The museum took over the current lease in 1993 from the Vineyard Environmental Research Institute, a nonprofit group that in 1986 signed a contract to oversee the care and maintenance of the three structures.
By the late 1980s, the Vineyard's lighthouses, once necessary and treasured, were in poor condition. All five were covered in graffiti, had been vandalized and neglected. The grounds were overgrown. When the institute took over, it launched a restoration of the three lighthouses. For the next five years, under the direction of Island resident William Marks, the institute repainted, renovated, and repaired the lighthouses. Slowly they improved and reopened to the public.
Nearly 20 years later, the Martha's Vineyard Museum hired a private company to assess the status of the lighthouses. They learned that, once again, improvements are needed. "They really take a beating," Mr. Dripps said of the weathered structures. "They need some tender loving care." Mr. Dripps said the museum must raise nearly $900,000 for repairs and improvements to the three lighthouses.
"The general public really wants that lighthouse to be there forever and that will take financial support," Mr. Hammett said. The project will rely solely on private contributions.
The birthday party on Thursday evening is the first step to bringing awareness to the issue and one of the Vineyard's most treasured resources - its lighthouses. "In the short term, it's a birthday party," Mr. Dripps said. "In the long term, we hope to raise awareness about a vision." The vision is of an Island with fully restored lighthouses complete with heating and ventilation. Mr. Dripps hopes the project will be complete in the next three to four years.
But first, it's party time. Starting at 7 p.m. on Thursday, trolleys will run people from Sunset Lake across from Our Market to the lighthouse where parking is scarce. Families are encouraged to bring a picnic dinner and stay through sunset. There will be free ice cream served in old-fashioned Dixie cups and a birthday cake in the shape of a lighthouse. The rain date for the event is July 13.
The big question will be about frosting - milk chocolate or vanilla? For many years, the lighthouse was painted a light shade of brown, and was known as the chocolate lighthouse. In 1988, it was painted white, hence the vanilla. The shade and flavor of frosting will be a surprise.
Donations of any size to the lighthouse restoration project are greatly appreciated and can be mailed to the Martha's Vineyard Museum, P.O. Box 1310, Edgartown, MA, 02539. "For Lighthouses" should be written somewhere on the check. Anyone interested in volunteering at the birthday celebration on Thursday should contact Mr. Hammett at 508-693-8104.