From the Vineyard Gazette editions of May 1933:

An effort will be made by Congressman Charles L. Gifford to have the protection of Gay Head cliffs undertaken as one of the projects in the proposed public works program of the Roosevelt administration. A bill to authorize action by the federal government to check the continued erosion of the majestic cliffs of colored clay was introduced by Congressman Gifford some time ago. Unless some steps are taken, the cliffs will gradually slip away into the sea, and one of the finest spectacles in the United States will be lost to the future. Erosion is caused principally by the action of the tides and can be prevented.

Congressman Gifford appealed to the secretary of agriculture to have the Gay Head cliffs included among the “elimination of erosion” items in the new unemployment relief program. Secretary Wallace has just replied that the protection of the cliffs appeals to him as a very worthy object, but that this is not the type of erosion control contemplated in the act and, as the act is interpreted, cannot be included. The effort to have the project undertaken in the public works program will follow.

Before the war, a movement for the establishment of a state or national park at Gay Head, and for protection of the cliffs, had gained widespread support. The plans were abandoned, however, and the cliffs have continued to wear away. Congressman Gifford took up the matter several years ago and has pushed it persistently.


Congressman Gifford is doing a great service to the Vineyard and to the nation as a whole by bringing forward the project of preserving the Gay Head cliffs as one which ought to be included in the administration’s program of public works.

Gay Head should have been protected long ago. Steps to prevent erosion by the sea are long overdue. Had it not been for the war, it is more than likely that the state would have taken the cliffs as a park. The war was the first interruption, and the depression is the second. Now that there is to be a series of public undertakings, the Gay Head project should have consideration.


The preservation of the cliffs of Gay Head is a public work quite apart from ordinary projects for the improvement of rivers and harbors. We have one of the scenic wonders of the nation, and it is disappearing before our eyes. Whether some bit of dredging should be carried out this year or next, whether some bridge should be built now or later - questions like these - may be discussed and decided in the light of what the government has to spend. One may refer to them as “pork barrel” matters, if he is so inclined. But the Gay Head project is entirely different. The interest at stake is not that of a small community, but of the country as a whole; and the time element is vital. If there continues to be delays, we may have no Gay Head left to save. Standing at the top of the cliffs, one looks out on Vineyard Sound and sees the waves breaking over the submerged boulders of Devil’s Bridge. Once the clay cliffs extended that far into the sea, and it was the recession of the land, washed away year by year, which dropped most of these boulders into the water. It is impossible to tell what the escarpment has lost in height through being worn away. Further erosion, however, will plainly mean an immediate lowering of the cliffs and a diminution of the grandeur of the spectacle which they afford.

Gay Head represents the survival of extremely old deposits formed with great rapidity by a large river of the tertiary age. The “Vineyard river” — as geologists refer to a stream which no man ever saw — must have flowed from the westward. Shaler says that the extent of the beds of coarse sediment on the front of the delta is proof that the river was one of much power. No existing river on this coast is powerful enough to make any such accumulations.

The white sand of the Gay Head cliffs evidently was brought by this prehistoric river from a region where the breaking down of granitic rocks released this fine and shining residue. The red sand and clay came from reddish sandstones and shales, worn down and carried to this place by the stream. Other colors were similarly formed, and carried into the position they now occupy by the action of the river delta.

Why are all the colors so bright and unmixed? How were they all kept separate, as if an artist were deliberately preparing to decorate these lofty cliffs? Shaler’s theory is that the Vineyard river had several mouths, or that there were several streams coming together. At each mouth, or from each stream, came one distinctive color, to be contributed to the present whole.

Gorgeous as a spectacle and singularly interesting as a geologic study, Gay Head cliffs ought to be protected and preserved as a national asset. The same considerations which have led to the safeguarding of scenic places in the far west ought to induce Congress to safeguard Gay Head for all time.

Compiled by Hilary Wall