History Of West Chop Lighthouse
The original structure of the West Chop Lighthouse, a 25-foot, white conical tower built from rubblestone, stood on the northern bluffs of the West Chop peninsula near Tisbury, Massachusetts. The peninsula is located between the channels of water known as Vineyard Haven Harbor and Vineyard Sound.
There are two parallel peninsulas called East Chop and West Chop on the island. According to The National Park Service, “the word ‘chop’ was used to signify the entrance to a channel.”
The lighthouse is also sometimes called West Chop Light and West Chop Light Station.
West Chop’s Quiet Beginnings
Vineyard Haven Harbor, called Holmes Hole until 1871, was, according to the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, “one of the most important ports on the Atlantic coast” for 300 years. Still, despite the importance of the adjacent harbor, the entire West Chop peninsula remained largely rural for many years.
In the late 1800’s, when Martha’s Vineyard saw a large rise in tourism through the development of summer resorts, the West Chop Land Company began developing the area by building roads, constructing a wharf and beach and selling cottage plots to the public. After the development company went bankrupt in 1911, the West Chop Land Trust, made of permanent residents and property owners in the area, took control of the resort community.
Moving And Rebuilding The Tower
The lighthouse structure has been rebuilt and relocated twice since its beginning.
The original lighthouse structure in West Chop was built in 1817 as a maritime navigational aid and warning system. The first keeper was James Shaw West, who lived there, with his wife Charlotte and their children, and manned the station from 1818 through 1848. But by the early 1840’s, the Vineyard Haven Harbor bluffs on which the original tower stood had eroded considerably, leaving the structure standing a mere 37 feet from the water. Between the erosion and the significant deterioration of the tower itself, the decision was made to create a new light station some 1,000 feet from the original location.
In 1891, another tower was built, in still another location, this one measuring 45 feet high and made from brick. The attached keeper’s house was also rebuilt at this time. This is the tower that stands today. An assistant lighthouse keeper’s house and an oil house were also added to the property around this time, and the property also houses a foghorn station.
Fresnel Lenses Vs Automation
According to The United States Lighthouse Society, aside from Boston Light, which is the oldest lighthouse in the US, “all lighthouses in the United States are automated,” but the West Chop was not automated until 1976. It was the last lighthouse on Martha’s Vineyard to be automated, and, as such, the last one to remain manned. West Chop Lighthouse is also one of the few remaining lighthouses that still contains its original Fresnel lenses.
Before automation, lighthouse keepers used Fresnel lenses to send signals to boats and ships. These lenses were first created by Augustin Jean Fresnel, a French physicist, in 1822. The Fresnel lens at West Chop Lighthouse was installed in 1857.
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines the Fresnel lens as “a lens that has a surface consisting of a concentric series of simple lens sections so that a thin lens with a short focal length and large diameter is possible and that is used especially for spotlights.”
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, these glass lenses are used “to concentrate the light into a relatively narrow beam.” Before these lenses were used, lighthouse signals could only be seen from about eight to twelve miles away. The Martha’s Vineyard Times explains that “Fresnel’s beehive-shaped system of lenses and prisms transformed a single oil-burning lamp into a powerful beacon that could be seen 20 miles out to sea.”
Today, automated lighthouses use a highly concentrated beacon light powered by electricity. The National Park Service, in an article for the learning section, explains that “an automatic sensor which detects moisture in the air turns on the fog signals when needed.”
The Lighthouse And Grounds Today
To this day, West Chop Lighthouse is an active, working lighthouse used for navigation and accommodation for Coast Guard personnel and their families. The lighthouse is the only lighthouse on Martha’s Vineyard that is both owned and maintained by the US Coast Guard, and it is not open to the public. The lighthouse does not have an official keeper.
The tower and attached red-roofed house, along with associated structures, are surrounded by a white fence. West Chop Lighthouse has been on the National Register Of Historic Places since 1987.
Contact Information And Hours
The lighthouse is located on the northeast side of Martha’s Vineyard on West Chop Road. You can drive to the lighthouse, via Franklin Street or Main Street in Vineyard Haven, to view it from a distance. Vineyard Haven’s Main Street becomes West Chop Road when you reach the peninsula.
917 West Chop Road
Martha’s Vineyard, MA 02568
If you prefer, you can even use these coordinates provided by New England Lighthouses And Coastal Attractions:
Latitude: 41° 28′ 51″ N
Longitude: 70° 35′ 59″ W
Phone Number: NA
There is no official phone number for the lighthouse. For more information, you might consider calling:
The Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Of Commerce: 800-505-4815
MV Sightseeing: 508-693-1555
The West Chop Club: 508-693-1005
Joint Base Cape Cod: 508-968-7200
Hours Of Operation
Since the lighthouse is not open to the public, there are no official hours of operation. Please be respectful of the property and anyone living there.
Accommodations At West Chop Lighthouse
Since West Chop Lighthouse is not open to the public, either for tours or accommodation, you will need to find an alternative place to stay when you visit the area.
Martha’s Vineyard affords many comfortable, iconic hotels, cottages and bed and breakfasts. A few recommendations are listed here.
Martha’s Vineyard Rentals
13 Beach Street, Ext #8
Vineyard Haven, MA 02568
This rental agency offers cottages all over the island.
Nobnocket Boutique Inn
60 Mount Aldworth Road
Vineyard Haven, MA 02568
This modern boutique bed and breakfast hotel is a 2020 winner of the Conde Nast Johansens luxury hotel awards.
9 Main Street
Vineyard Haven, MA 02568
This stunning, clapboard style mansion offers homey rooms within easy walking distance of the ferry terminal.
Crocker House Inn
12 Crocker Avenue
Vineyard Haven, MA 02568
For a quiet, peaceful stay right on the water, book a room in this eight room seaside bed and breakfast.
Where To Eat Near West Chop
Martha’s Vineyard offers no end of restaurants for whatever cuisine you’re craving. And you’ll need the energy for all your island adventures!
Serving salads, sandwiches, lobster rolls and more, Waterside Market is a smorgasbord of delicious, homemade food. This small-town market and café offers hot and cold foods from 7:30-4:00, Wednesday to Monday.
From traditional American cuisine like fried chicken and hamburgers to local seafood and unique soups of the day, Beach Road offers a no-fuss dining experience in Vineyard Haven.
Little House Café
Dine on a wide variety of unique cuisines at Little House Café. From Mediterranean and Greek to Cajun and Mexican, there’s something for everyone. They are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The Black Dog Tavern
From hearty pancake breakfasts to fried seafood dinners, The Black Dog offers a traditional pub dining experience on the island.
Touring West Chop Lighthouse
The lighthouse is not open to the public, so there are no official tours of the property, and you can’t get extremely close to it. However, guests and tourists are encouraged to enjoy the view, either from a ferry boat or from the road.
In an article for The Martha’s Vineyard Times, US Coast Guard’s Petty Officer Skena says the location of the lighthouse offers “a panoramic view of Vineyard Haven Harbor, out to Nantucket Sound, across to Nobska Light in Woods Hole and up Vineyard Sound.”
Ferries can be chartered from a number of places on and near Martha’s Vineyard, including Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs and Woods Hole. Some ferries sail past West Chop Lighthouse and others don’t. Be sure to ask the ferry company specifically before booking a trip to avoid disappointment.
Ferry and steamboat companies to consider:
- Seastreak: 800-262-8743
- Island Queen: 508-548-4800
- Steamship Authority: 508-693-9130
- Hy-Line: 508-693-0112
- Martha’s Vineyard Fast Ferry: 401-295-4040
Other Lighthouse nearby
East Chop Lighthouse – 13 minute drive, 5.1 miles