Preserving Martha’s Vineyard’s Gay Head Light

The Gay Head Lighthouse is one of the most recognizable structures on the Island. The red brick tower sits 170 feet above sea level atop the Gay Head cliffs. For 155 years it provided a guiding light to mariners in what was once one of the busiest shipping lanes on the eastern coast of the United States.

A symbol of the Island and link to its nautical past, the venerable Gay Head Lighthouse on the western tip of the Island is quietly in need of help. Not immediately, but over the long term if its beacon is to provide a marker for future generations.

The lighthouse, a brick concentric tower that stands 51-feet high topped with a DCB-224 lens that flashes alternating red and white lights every 7.5 seconds, is threatened by the forces of nature. Experts say it is not in any imminent danger of crumbling down or falling into the sea.

But they also agree it is only a matter of time. The cliffs lose several feet of land annually. It will probably be decades before the lighthouse is in any real danger — but officials do not want to wait for a crisis.

Over the next year the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, which provides stewardship over the Gay Head Lighthouse through a long-term lease with the federal government, will ask all six Island towns to help fund both short-term and long-term repairs to the lighthouse with community preservation act (CPA) funds.

The CPA allows communities to raise money through a surcharge of up to 3 percent on all property bills; the state then matches a portion of the money raised through fees assessed on all real estate transactions at the Massachusetts registry of deeds.

The money would be used to shore up the tower structure and stabilize the bank on which it sits. Experts agree the lighthouse must be repaired and stabilized before it could be moved back from the cliff to a safer location.

“To move a brick building of that age, you need to stabilize it before you move it,” said Richard Skidmore, Gay Head Lighthouse keeper since 1990.

“The money we are talking about could stabilize the building for 50 years, giving us time to come up with more of a long-term plan that will likely call for it be moved.”

Community Preservation

In 2003 the museum paid $25,000 for an assessment of all three lighthouses by Gary Gredell, who had previously helped restore 46 lighthouses on the east coast. In 2006 the Museum refurbished East Chop Light inside and out at a cost of $140,000. Edgartown Light was renovated in 2007 at a cost of $140,000.

Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, with their larger tax bases, were able to draw on larger amounts of CPA money for the renovations, a luxury Aquinnah does not have.

With work on those two lighthouses completed, the museum has now turned its focus to restoring the Gay Head Lighthouse, and more specifically, paying for the costly renovations.

Plan for the inevitable

David Nathans, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, said the museum considers preserving the lighthouse a top priority. He also thinks that the museum needs to have a larger fund at their disposal to address any contingencies that might arise.

“Some things you can predict and plan for, but other things — because of weather and other structure-related issues — are not as predictable. If you have a situation where bricks get undermined, then they might get loose simultaneously, and you don’t even have time to write a grant,” he said.

Mr. Nathans said it was important to set aside funds for minor work and emergencies, but completely renovating the tower will cost much more. An engineering study done several years ago estimated that it would cost between $750,000 and $1 million to completely refurbish the lighthouse.

“Right now we are putting a lot of band-aids on it, and that’s working, but at some point the band-aids will be coming so fast and so often it won’t be worth it. We will need to do a complete overhaul,” he said

He said eventually the lighthouse will almost certainly need to be moved.

“[The ocean] is advancing; and with the rain and the surf and the storms, it’s just a matter of time … the banks are falling, just look at some of the overhead photos taken 40 years ago, we are halfway closer [to the ocean],” he said.

“We think we can slow erosion by doing certain things, planting vegetation for example, but Mother Nature is going to do what she is going to do. I don’t think there is any danger for a number of years, but we have to have a plan … and we need money if something does go wrong,” he added.

CPA installment

At the Aquinnah annual town meeting on May 10, voters said yes to a request for $20,000 in CPA funds. In his remarks to voters preceding the vote, Mr. Skidmore said the money would help fund minor renovations. He also warned it will cost a lot more to completely repair and stabilize the 155-year-old structure, and Aquinnah would need help from other Island towns.

Mr. Skidmore also described the current state of the lighthouse. “We do not appear to have an emergency right now, but we would like to have money in the bank we can draw upon when an emergency occurs. Because when such a thing occurs you need the money right away to deal with it, or it threatens the rest of the structure,” he told voters.

In a conversation with The Times, Mr. Skidmore said he is optimistic other towns would be willing to fund the renovations for the Gay Head Lighthouse.

“In my mind, the lighthouse is not solely a possession of Aquinnah, it belongs to the entire Island. In my mind, it’s a permanent symbol of the Island … I know from 21 years of bringing people up there [for tours] that people feel very strongly about that lighthouse. I think there is an almost romantic attachment.”

Mr. Skidmore said he would like to use CPA money already set aside by Aquinnah to do some brick work on the lighthouse this fall. Although he doesn’t classify the situation as an emergency that could change rapidly for any number of reasons, he said.

About three years ago, he said, a master mason looking over some recent work found that a portion of the lighthouse needed to be reinforced immediately. Because the town had already set aside some CPA money for repairs to the lighthouse, officials were able to take immediate action.

“As they started taking out bricks to look at the problem, they realized a whole section of bricks were starting to shift. If we weren’t able to tend to that immediately, it was possible that portion of the building may have fallen,” he said.

Derrill Bazzy, a member of the Aquinnah CPC, said he is optimistic other towns will help pay for the repairs to the Gay Head Lighthouse.

“It’s a light that is beloved by everyone on the Island,” he said. “Even if we throw a big percentage of our funds at this, which we are, it only goes so far. We are the smallest town on the Island, one of the smallest in the commonwealth, and we can’t do it alone,” he said.

Lighthouse in time

Although the current brick lighthouse was completed in 1856, the history of a lighthouse on that site dates back to 1799, when the commonwealth deeded two acres to the federal government for the purpose of building a lighthouse.

President John Adams approved a contract with Martin Lincoln of Hingham to build a wooden lighthouse on the site as well as a keeper’s cottage and outbuildings. On Nov. 7, 1799 the light was turned for on for the first time, with Ebenezer Skiff serving as the light’s keeper.

In 1844 the lighthouse was moved back from the cliff by 75 feet. In 1852, in a 760-page report, the federal lighthouse board stated that Gay Head Lighthouse was “not second to any on the eastern coast, and should be fitted, without delay, with a first-order illuminating apparatus.”

In 1854, Congress approved a request for $30,000 for the total replacement of the tower, dwelling house, and light — a first-order Fresnel lens. The new brick structure and beacon was completed and made operational in 1856.

In 1874 the light was changed from just flashing white to “three whites and one red” to distinguish Gay Head from other lighthouses and eliminate confusion with other flashes. In 1952 a high intensity electric beacon replaced the Fresnel lens.

In 1956 the light was fully automated and the keeper dwelling was torn down.