When you’re visiting New England, you have to see some of their famous lighthouses. Luckily, Martha’s Vineyard has 5 beautiful lighthouses dotted around the island. You can go inside four of the five lighthouses of Martha’s Vineyard. People in the know say that its worth seeing all of them because the Martha’s Vineyard lighthouses are a very diverse group located in a small easily-accessible area. You can go inside East Chop Lighthouse, Edgartown Lighthouse, Gay Head/Aquinnah lighthouse and Cape Poge Lighthouse. Even though you can only visit West Chop Lighthouse from the outside, it’s still worth seeing. Martha’s Vineyard lighthouses are a fun way to see the different Martha’s Vineyard towns and the views from them are fantastic.
You can read more about the lighthouses of Martha’s Vineyard (and the 6th missing lighthouse that stood where the Martha’s Vineyard Museum is today) in MV Magazine.
Martha’s Vineyard Lighthouses
The 5 Martha’s Vineyard lighthouses are all on the North side of the island.
Why does such a small island need so many lighthouses?
Vineyard Haven had been an important port in New England for hundreds of years dating from 1634.
At one point in history, the Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds were some of the busiest waterways in the world.
Why would this little part of the Atlantic Ocean be so busy?
Even before the tea trade made famous in the Boston Tea Party, Boston was part of the Triangle Trade of slavery (Boston merchants bought enslaved people from Africa, traded them for sugar in the West Indies, and the sugar was made into rum in New England as part of New England’s huge rum distilling industry.)
New England did not have the climate for large scale farming so most of the enslaved peoples were sold onto the Caribbean islands.
The Martha’s Vineyard Lighthouses were needed because the island has a treacherous position for sailors. There are tides coming in from Boston and Rhode Island as well as underwater dangers like rocks and shoals.
Martha’s Vineyard became even more important as a center for the whaling industry in the 18th century.
Who operates and takes care of these lighthouses?
Martha’s Vineyard Museum is responsible for two of the lighthouses – the Edgartown Lighthouse and East Chop Lighthouses.
The town of Aquinnah runs the Aquinnah Lighthouse.
The Coast Guard still operates West Chop Lighthouse.
Cape Pogue lighthouse is run by the Trustees of Reservations, a conservation organisation in Massachusetts, and the Coast Guard.
Down Island Lighthouses
Most of the lighthouses were located down island near the towns of Edgartown and Vineyard Haven because that was where the commercial activities of the island were in historic times.
East Chop Lighthouse
Built in 1869, the East Chop Lighthouse replaced a telegraph signal tower at the same location. The Telegraph Tower was set up in 1828 to receive signals from Nantucket and then sent onto the mainland of Massachusetts.
The original 1869 lighthouse burned down in 1871 and the cast iron version you see today was erected in 1878. Located in the town of Oak Bluffs on a cliff 79 feet above the sea, the East Chop Lighthouse overlooks Nantucket Sound and is in the National Register of Historic Places.
The East Chop Lighthouse is maintained by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
Practicalities for Visiting East Chop Lighthouse
The East Chop Lighthouse is open Sunday evenings during the summer. Children are free to visit and adults are charged a minimal entrance fee.
There is limited street parking for cars nearby. You can also the MV bus to reach the East Chop Lighthouse (numbers 7, 9, 13).
You can rent the East Chop Lighthouse for private events and Martha’s Vineyard weddings.
West Chop Lighthouse
Built in 1817, the West Chop Lighthouse started off as a wooden structure. The wooden lighthouse was replaced in 1838 with a brick building. The current structure dates from 1891. Thanks to erosion, the West Chop Lighthouse has also been moved a couple of times in the 19th century.
The West Chop Lighthouse finally became automated in 1976 but it still uses its 1857 Fresnal lens. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places. The nearest town is Vineyard Haven which is a couple of miles away.
The West Chop Lighthouse is owned by the US Coast Guard and is not open to the public. You can spot it though on the Steamship Authority Ferries coming into Martha’s Vineyard or if you are sailing in Vineyard Haven.
Cape Poge Lighthouse
The second oldest of Martha’s Vineyard lighthouses, Cape Poge was built in 1801. Once again, the lighthouse was built because of the importance of the shipping and whaling industry to the island.
The original lighthouse was a wooden structure with a little caretaker cottage.
Like the other lighthouses, the Cape Poge lighthouse has also been rebuilt and moved in location over both the 18th and 19th centuries. Cape Poge has had erosion issues just like Aquinnah Lighthouse.
The Cape Poge lighthouse is maintained today by the Trustees of the Reservation and the lantern inside by the US Coast Guard.
Practical Info for Visiting Cape Poge Lighthouse
Located on the Cape Poge wildlife reservation in Chappy, this lighthouse is not easily reached. You will need to take the little Chappy Ferry over to Chappy from Edgartown. Then either drive to Cape Poge or arrange with the Trustees to have them pick you up for a tour of the lighthouse and Cape Poge. This visit is a great Martha’s Vineyard family activity.
You can take tours of the wildlife reservation and the lighthouse during the summer from in front of the Trustees shack at the entrance to Cape Poge.
The original Edgartown Lighthouse was built in 1828 in Edgartown harbor on a small man-made island about a quarter mile from the shore.
Eventually a sand walkway was built over the years and the Lighthouse is no longer out on its own in Edgartown harbor.
The lighthouse was destroyed from the effects of a hurricane in 1938. In 1939, the lighthouse was replaced by one that came from Ipswich Massachusetts. This Ipswich lighthouse was dismantled and towed over to Martha’s Vineyard by barge.
There is also a Children’s Memorial at the bottom for children who have passed away. The memorial started in 2001 as the idea of a local islander who had lost a teenage son in a car accident. We have placed a stone ourselves there for our youngest son who passed away in 2010. There is an annual Children’s Memorial Ceremony of Remembrance in September.
The Edgartown Lighthouse is currently maintained by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
Practicalities for Visiting Edgartown Lighthouse
The Edgartown Lighthouse is open daily during the summer. There is a nominal fee for adults to climb up to the top and children are free.
There is limited parking on North Water Street. From North Water Street, you will need to walk about 10 minutes through a sandy path to get to Edgartown Lighthouse.
Like the East Chop Lighthouse, the Edgartown Lighthouse is open for private events and weddings.
Up Island Lighthouse
The limited number of lighthouses up island did have its benefits in terms of aiding smuggling activities (ahem! Tea Lane proudly displays a sign claiming to be a smuggling route in ye olde days).
The predecessor to the Aquinnah Lighthouse was the first lighthouse built on Martha’s Vineyard. A wooden lighthouse was built on this site in 1799 as the island became important to shipping and the whaling industry. A red brick lighthouse was built in 1856 to replace the wooden structure.
Climbing the stairs to the viewing platform near the actual light of the lighthouse is a fun thing for kids to do. The stairs are steep and narrow and the standing platform is also narrow. You get great views over the island and the cliffs on a clear day.
Practicalities for Visiting Aquinnah Lighthouse
From from mid June to mid October, the lighthouse is open daily and in the evenings for sunset viewings on Thursday and Fridays. Kids under the age of 12 are free to enter. There is a minimal charge for adults.
The Aquinnah lighthouse is easy to reach by car – drive straight to the end of the island and you will find it at Aquinnah Circle. Note that parking is limited.
If you are taking the MV bus, use Bus Route #5. From down-island the bus will take about 1 hour to get to Aquinnah.
Alternatively, there are Martha’s Vineyard tours that take you out to the Aquinnah Lighthouse.
By the way, the Aquinnah lighthouse is closed when it rains (we found out the hard way thinking it was an easy way to keep the kids entertained on a rainy day).
Martha’s Vineyard Lighthouses
Visiting the Martha’s Vineyard lighthouses is a fun way to tour the island. They tell the tale of the island’s history and provide landmarks for the Vineyard today. For visitors, they provide great scenic backdrops that adds to their Martha’s Vineyard memories.
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