The first lighthouse on this site was constructed in 1799. President John Adams approved the construction of an eight-sided wooden tower, a keeper’s cottage and outbuildings. The light rose about 50 feet above the cliffs and was fueled by sperm whale oil. In 1844, the tower was moved back 75 feet due to erosion of the cliffs.
An 1852 report on lighthouses in the United States ranked Gay Head Light as the ninth most important seacoast light, the highest rank of any light north of New York. The light’s importance to maritime traffic led to the installation of one of the first Fresnel lenses in the U.S., in 1856. Steamship excursions from Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven brought tourists to a dock below the cliffs, where the passengers were met with oxcarts to bring them up to the lighthouse grounds.