Gay Head Massachusetts, 1890

Gay Head is a new and small town embracing the peninsula formed by Squibuocket and Menemsha ponds, constituting the western extremity of Martha's Vineyard. These ponds are fed from the sea, with which they communicate by short creeks. Chilmark bounds this town on the east, being separated from it by the ponds, except for a bridge passing over the creek connecting them, and the isthmus at the southwest formed by Squibnocket Beach. On the north is Vineyard Sound, with the long line of the Elizabeth Islands interposing between it and Buzzard's Bay; far to the northwest and west is the dim line of the Rhode Island and Connecticut shores; on the south is the illimitable ocean, its expanse broken only by the speck of Noman's Land, a few miles away.

In general extent, the town is three by three and one half miles. The entire superficial area is about 2,400 acres; the assessed area being 1,255 acres. The place was naturally nearly destitute of trees, but by care there are now nearly 150 acres of oak, beech and walnut. The geological formation is miocene tertiary. At the western extremity, the wild and fantastic cliff, Gay Head, rises to the height of 134 feet above the sea. This is crowned by a lighthouse, whose lantern is 173 feet above the water. The point affords splendid views of Vine yard Sound, the Elizabeth Islands, and the nearer shores of the main-land.

This cliff is an extensive field of study for the geologist, and is full of interest for the intelligent visitor. "A section across Gay Head," says Prof. Hitchcock, "four fifths of a mile long, displays twenty-three bright-colored bands of clay, sand and conglomerate, lignite and iron ore. The clays are white, blood-red, dull-red, yellow and green." The conglomerates contain fragments of bones and of teeth, cemented to the stones." Cut into innumerable forms by the incessant action of the sea, this beetling headland, belted with rainbow colors, awakens the admiration of all who approach the coast, and presents a lesson of profound significance to the scientist. The "Devil's Den," at this place, is a natural depression in the form of a bowl. It is about 1,200 feet in circumference and 100 feet deep, but is open toward the sea. It has the appearance of being the crater of an extinct volcano. "Here," says an Indian legend, resided the giant Maushope. Here he broiled the whale on fires made of the cedars which he tore up by the roots. After separating Noman's Land from Gay Head, changing his wife into an ugly rock on Saconet Point, and performing other supernatural feats, he left the island." The Indians may have been led to construct this legend from finding fossil skeletons of huge sea-animals here, and from believing the black lignite to be the remains of huge fires.

[lighthouse and cliffs at Gay Head]

Beside the salt ponds mentioned are several small fresh ponds, in one of which white lilies grow. The land is undulating, having a loamy and quite fertile soil. There are about 30 farms and 34 houses. The farm products in 1885 aggregated $4801 Articles for building purposes were produced here to the value of $300; and certain food preparations to $340. The fisheries yielded, for cod and lobsters chiefly, the sum of $2,442. A further income is derived by some of the Indians from the sale of baskets, shell ornaments, and other small articles, to summer visitors. The valuation in 1888 was $20,059, with a tax-rate of $10 on $1,000. The town has 47 legal voters. The population is 186, consisting chiefly of Indians, the remnant of the original occupants of the island. There is one school-house, valued at about $350. The Sunday school has a library of nearly 300 books. A Baptist society has existed here from a very early date; and they have a small church edifice.

Next to the cliffs, the most interesting object here is the lighthouse the finest, probably, on the American coast, containing alight of surpassing beauty and power. It is of French manufacture, and was one of the exhibits at the World's Fair in London. "It is made up of 1003 pieces of glass, so arranged as to concentrate the rays of light at a vast distance; and at 20 miles away it is as sure a beacon to the 80,000 passing vessels that annually welcome its appearance, as it is within a stone's throw of the cliff upon which it stands. The light is made by a succession of wicks, one above and within the other; and into these three gallons of oil are pumped nightly. Some idea of the size of the lens may be derived from the statement that eight persons may stand within it and each have ample elbow-room. . . . The lens revolves, giving an interval of darkness in the otherwise steady stream of brilliant light and also alternating the colors white and red, causing a flashing and varied light that more surely arrests the attention than would one entirely uniform.

After many years as a district, this place was incorporated as a town April 30, 1870; taking its name very properly from its celebrated promontory.

The Rev. Thomas Jeffers was the last minister to the Indians of this place, and died here August 30, 1818, aged 76 years. He was (presumedly) the ancestor of Thomas Jeffers, the present clerk of the town of Gay Head. Deacon Simon Johnson and Zaecheus Howwaswel were also highly esteemed citizens.

Nason and Varney's Massachusetts Gazetteer, 1890, pp. 323-326

Dukes county, Gazetteer 1890