Thursday, July 2, 2015

Moving a lighthouse… in 1844 and in 2015

The Gay Head Lighthouse, photographed in 2004
On the island of Martha’s Vineyard, there is a lighthouse at Gay Head.   The first lighthouse was built in 1796, and it was wooden. In 1838 the parabolic lantern in the top of the lighthouse were lowered 14 feet in order to shine below the fog line.   In 1844 the wooden lighthouse was moved back 75 feet because the clay cliffs were eroding.  These colorful red and white cliff were what gave the area its name “Gay Head”, which was originally known to the Wampanoag Indians as “Aquinnah”.  This move was purported to cost $386.87.

In 1854 a new, more modern lighthouse was built on Gay Head, in a new location (further back from the cliffs again) with more lamps and reflectors.  This lighthouse was closed in 1956, and it was retrofitted to run automatically without a lighthouse keeper.  In 1986 the light was re-opened to the public for tours.  By 2013 the lighthouse was declared “excess property” by the Coast Guard and the town of Aquinnah acquired it.  The Martha’s Vineyard Museum now manages the tower and the tours.

In 2012 the lighthouse was only 46 feet from the eroding clay cliff.  The “Save the Gay Head Lighthouse Committee” was formed to move the lighthouse away from the cliffs to safety.  A plan was made in 2014, and in April 2015 the lighthouse was moved back 135 feet from the cliffs.  This move has cost over $3.5 million dollars.

My sister lives on Martha's Vineyard, and she was married on the top of the Gay Head Light house in 2006.  I know that the lighthouse has been a special place in her heart, even before the wedding, and it is special to many people who live on Martha’s Vineyard island.  She was so happy to be part of the committee to save the lighthouse, and became the landscape architect for the landscape design team.  You can see her proposed design and rendering for the park around the lighthouse at its new location at this link  (click on the image of the rendering at this link to enlarge):

And here is the completed landscape rendering and final design (you can see the old and the new locations of the lighthouse):

Lighthouse Relocation chair, Len Butler,
with landscape architect, Laurel Wilkinson,
(my little sister in a hard hat!)
Photo courtesy of Derrill Bazzy
At the many meetings and during the intensive research that went on as part of moving this enormous 400 ton brick lighthouse, my sister learned that in 1844 the original wooden lighthouse was moved by “John Mayhew of Edgartown”.   She thought that was wonderful, since our family is descended from the original Governor Thomas Mayhew of Martha’s Vineyard.  She asked me “Were we cousins?”

Well, we descend from three of Thomas Mayhew’s children, two from his first wife Abigail Parkhurst, and one from his second wife Jane.  There were many, many “John Mayhews” in the family tree.  Which one was the John who moved the lighthouse?

I asked a few fellow genealogists for help.  Janice Webster Brown, genealogist and fellow New Hampshire genealogy blogger at "Cow Hampshire",  leaped to the challenge and had a lineage for me before I could even get back to my computer that same day. Janice has a Mayhew ancestor, too. After some fiddling, here is our cousin connection:

                     Governor Thomas Mayhew m. Jane, widow of Thomas Paine
                                  I                                            I
Matthew Mayhew m. Mary Skiffe            Hannah Mayhew m. Thomas Daggett
                                  I                                            I
Paine Mayhew m. Mary Rankin                Thomas Daggett m. Elizabeth Hawes
                                  I                                            I
Thomas Mayhew m. Lydia Lothrop           Elizabeth Daggett m. John Butler
                                  I                                            I
Paine Mayhew m. Margaret Wass              Keziah Butler m. Samuel Osborn
                                  I                                             I
Arnold Mayhew m. Jerusha White             Samuel Osborn m. Sarah Wass 
                                 I                                              I
Constant Mayhew m. Rowena Phinney     Sarah Osborn m. Charles Skinner
                                 I                                              I
John Mayhew m. Deborah Jernegan          Ann Skinner m.  Thomas Ratchford Lyons
                                                                    Isabella Lyons m. Rev. Ingraham E. Bill
                                                                    Caleb Rand Bill m. Ann Margaret Bollman
                                                                    Isabella Lyons Bill m. Albert Munroe Wilkinson
                                                                    Donald Munroe Wilkinson m. Bertha Louise Roberts
                                                                                           (my grandparents)

Many years ago I received assistance on my three Mayhew lineages from Catherine Mayhew (imagine that! Another cousin!), the librarian at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.  This spring Patricia Stano Carpenter, a fellow member of the Massachusetts Society of Genealogist, put me touch in Catherine Mayhew and Jane Manning, a genealogist on the island.  Catherine sent me the following excerpts from Banks History of Martha’s Vineyard, Volume II “Annals of Gay Head”, pages 28 – 31 in this email:

Leavitt Thaxter’s will confirmed the relationship naming his “adopted and beloved children John Mayhew, Esquire, and Martha Leavitt Thaxter”.6

 After the children’s father died Constant Mayhew died at Williamsburg in December 1827 of typhoid fever, he left five children ranging in age from 10 years to 2 months of age. A few years later Thaxter and his wife ‘Patty’ Martha (Mayhew) took in the two middle children, raising them as their own.1 The girl Martha Mayhew, also called Patty, was 13 when as “Martha Leavitt Mayhew, an adopted daughter of Leavitt Thaxter” she changed her name to Thaxter on 13 March 1832.5

 The boy John Mayhew never changed his name. His obituary says he came to Edgartown to attend Thaxter’s Academy by the time he was about 12, in 1834. At 18 he trained as a carpenter, then worked as a clerk in the custom house for about six years. In 1850 he established a successful express shipping business on the Islands while acting as purser for the steamboat company. Later he was also a general freight agent with the New Bedford, Nantucket & Martha’s Vineyard Steamboat Company for fifteen years.1

 I would be very interested in any facts found about the purported move.”

And from the book:

“Gay Head Light
..  approved 1799 by the General Court of Mass. a tract of two acres and four rods passed into possession of the government.  The tower first built was of wood, forty feet high, and the lantern  supported by eight large pine beams, was reached by ladders.  …The wooden tower, which had been reduced ten feet in height, lasted sixty years … and the site can be seen yet [c1930].  The second and present tower was built in 1858-9 and is of brick construction sixty feet high.

Another mystery?  Was the lighthouse really ever moved?  Or did John Mayhew just lop off the top of the wooden tower?  Well, at least we now know who was John Mayhew (1822 – 1899).  And yes, he was a cousin!

 More resources for the truly curious: 

The Gay Head Lighthouse

Gay Head Lighthouse at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum website

Gay Head Light Wikipedia article

Save the Gay Head Lighthouse Facebook page

“Gay Head Light reaches final destination after historic move” by Doug Fraser, for The Cape Cod Times, May 31, 2015,

“Day Three: Cheers All Around as Historic Lighthouse Move is Complete” by Alex Elvin for The Vineyard Gazette, May 30, 2015

Stay tuned!  Both PBS's NOVA and the National Geographic channel filmed the Gay Head Lighthouse move for future broadcast as part of documentaries to be broadcast later.

Published under a Creative Commons License
Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Moving a lighthouse ... in 1844 and in 2015", Nutfield Genealogy,  July 2, 2015 ( accessed [access date]). 

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