Throughout the 18th and 19th century, a heady mix of unforgiving seas, craggy ocean shallows, and shifting sand banks branded the waters off Cape Cod a shipwreck hotspot. In response, lighthouses were strategically built across the Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard to protect both sailors and the isles’ burgeoning seafaring-related industries.
Today, the well-preserved, high-rising structures collectively shine a light—pun intended—on the history and development of these two islands. While these lighthouses are no longer critical thanks to technological advancements in maritime navigation, many remain automated workhorses.
More importantly for travelers, each makes for incredible photographic opportunities and excites the imagination with stories of yore. Here, we present five iconic, must-see lighthouses blending the past with the present on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.
Brant Point Light, Nantucket
This 26-foot-tall, circa-1901 lighthouse is officially the shortest lighthouse in all New England. But there’s no Napoleon complex here: Given its proximity to Nantucket Harbor, this all-white wooden beauty is arguably the most photographed site on the island. And thanks to its near three-century past, it’s a big-deal entry on the National Register of Historic Places.
The current structure is the tenth—yes, tenth—rebuild of the second-oldest lighthouse in the country (originally built in 1746, prior to the formation of the United States of America itself). It was automated in 1965, and today, it still beams its bright red light up to ten nautical miles.
Edgartown Harbor Light, Martha’s Vineyard
Believe it or not, this Edgartown icon, which today marks the entrance to Edgartown Harbor, was slated for demolition as recently as the mid-1980s. Under operation by the United States Coast Guard, the circa-1939 cast-iron landmark had fallen into disrepair. But now, under the stewardship of Martha's Vineyard Museum and Martha's Vineyard Historical Society, the lighthouse shines in full glory.
Tours allow visitors to enter inside and climb up to the lantern room. Be sure to ask the lighthouse keeper of the building’s odd and dramatic history, which traces back to an original incarnation (built in 1828) over in Ipswich.
Gay Head Light, Martha’s Vineyard
Given its prime location in Aquinnah (aka Gay Head) in the southwest reaches of Martha's Vineyard, this lighthouse is best appreciated at sunset. But at any time of day, Gay Head Light offers a glimpse of the old Martha's Vineyard. It was erected as the island’s first lighthouse at the turn of the 18th century, though its current red-brick aesthetic reflects a rebuild in 1844, and its current location is thanks to a meticulously-executed, piece-by-piece move in 2015.
With white and red lights that reach 24 and 20 nautical miles, respectively, the lighthouse still keeps sailors aware of the perilous underwater rocky ledge known as Devil's Bridge, much like it did centuries ago. The lighthouse is open for tours seasonally through the Town of Aquinnah.
Great Point Light, Nantucket
Reaching the so-called “Nantucket Light” is a New Englander’s rite of passage. This fully operational, all-white stone lighthouse, rebuilt in 1986 to reflect its original 1784 appearance, stands at Nantucket’s northernmost point on a small spit of land where the Atlantic Ocean and Nantucket Sound meet.
Tucked deep within the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Reserve and known for its unspoiled dunes and prolific birdlife, the lighthouse is accessible only by sandy roads. Meaning, you’ll need to walk seven miles on foot, rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle (with the proper beach permit), or pre-plan for a guided-tour with The Trustees of Reservations of Massachusetts. Whichever you choose, expect to reap worthwhile rewards by taking this (unpaved) road less traveled.
Sankaty Head Light, Nantucket
Near the easternmost tip of Nantucket in the village of Siasconset, this 70-foot-tall, brick-and-granite lighthouse dates back to 1850, when it was built on a bluff straddling one of Nantucket’s most raw and wild coastlines. Though it was moved 400 feet inland in 1987 as a protection against bluff erosion, the historic lighthouse still operates as a navigational tool today, beaming a white light out 24 nautical miles every 7.5 seconds.
The lighthouse itself is closed to visitors, but the grounds are not. Given its remote location and few visitors, anticipate having this man-made marvel mostly to yourself—and your deep thoughts.
Tradewind offers regularly scheduled shuttle flights to Martha’s Vineyard (May through November) and Nantucket (late April through early December). Tradewind also offers private charters to both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket year-round.
Featured Photo: Doug Butchy via Flickr / CC BY