Change in status of Gay Head lighthouse sought, to encourage preservation

Gay Head Light is perilously close to the eroding edge of the iconic cliffs.
Photo by Lisa Vanderhoop

Gay Head Light is perilously close to the eroding edge of the iconic cliffs.

A movement to preserve the Gay Head Light, which is facing an imminent threat on the Island’s westernmost promontory in Aquinnah due to rapid erosion, picked up a key ally this week in U.S. Congressman William Keating.

In a letter dated December 12, Mr. Keating made an emotional plea to the commander of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr., asking that the Coast Guard list the lighthouse as excess property.

The congressman explained that listing the structure as excess property would allow the ownership to be transferred to a local entity or group such as the town of Aquinnah, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) or the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

To date the tower remains the property of the U.S. Coast Guard and is leased to and maintained by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

“While the museum has coupled with the town of Aquinnah and individual donors to finance supplemental restorations in recent years, it is imperative that drastic preservation efforts begin immediately,” the congressman wrote.

Mr. Keating cited the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, which permits the U.S. General Services Agency to transfer ownership of one dozen lighthouses no longer considered to be “mission critical” by the Coast Guard.

The congressman said it was his understanding that the Coast Guard has expressed its intentions to transfer Gay Head Lighthouse in the near future but has not yet reported the tower as excess property.

“Given the rate at which the tower property is eroding, I am respectfully requesting that the Coast Guard report Gay Head Light as surplus so as to expedite the property transfer,” he wrote, adding:

“Further delay may lead to irreversible consequences, including physical damage to the lighthouse and adverse impacts on the local economy of Martha’s Vineyard.”

Iconic landmark

Mr. Keating also reflected on the historic nature of the lighthouse, its link to the Island’s nautical past and its status as an iconic symbol of Martha’s Vineyard.

“Since its original construction in 1856, the lighthouse has safely guided ships away from the dangers of the Island’s rocky coast…. Gay Head Light stood watch during New England’s busiest years of nautical traffic, guiding everything from traders navigating eastern waterways to whaling ships heading out to sea.

“However, this lighthouse is far more than a beacon for approaching ships. It has become an essential component of the local economy — an economy which remains strongly tied to the tourism industry.”

Mr. Keating also argued in the letter that erosion along the Island’s southern coast poses a serious threat to the lighthouse. “Today, this iconic landmark is at serious risk of succumbing to the same natural elements that give Martha’s Vineyard its recognizable beauty,” he wrote. “The land on which the light tower is situated is eroding at a rate of nearly two feet per year, and only 50 feet now remain between the tower and the approaching cliffs.

“If Gay Head Light is not relocated, Martha’s Vineyard will undoubtedly lose an historic emblem within just a few short years,” he concludes.”

Local efforts

Just as efforts to preserve the lighthouse are moving forward on the federal level, there is also progress on the local front. At their meeting on December 4, the Aquinnah selectmen agreed to appoint a seven-member Lighthouse Committee.

A total of 12 people expressed interest in joining the committee prior to their meeting.

Selectmen voted 2-1 to contact the 12 interested parties and have them meet to form their own seven-member committee, develop a mission statement and write the committee’s rules and present them to selectmen at a future meeting.

The committee will play an advisory role, but is expected to be take on the tasks of fundraising, public relations, grant writing and acquiring real estate in support of preserving Gay Head Light. All final decisions will be made by selectmen.

Aquinnah residents Meg Bodner, Robyn Robinson, Mitzi Pratt, Berta Welch, Liz Witham, Duncan Caldwell, Elise LeBovit, and Larry Hohlt submitted letters expressing interest in joining the advisory committee.

Chris Scott from the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, town administrator Adam Wilson, and David Nathans and Betsey Mayhew from the Martha’s Vineyard Museum have also expressed interest in joining.

Town administrator Adam Wilson said this week that the International Chimney Corporation, based out of Buffalo, New York, has already performed a site visit of the Gay Head Light.

Mr. Wilson said representatives for the company told town leaders there needs to be a certain amount of land around the lighthouse to bring in the heavy equipment needed to lift and move the structure.

But Mr. Wilson said the project will involve much more than just physically moving the tower: it will also involve combing through the complicated issue of ownership and also finding a new home for the historic lighthouse.

“It’s going to be a long process,” Mr. Wilson said. “One option is to move it to a town-owned parcel, but other options might involve moving it to private property which will involve negotiating to buy that property.

“This will involve a lot of research that will most likely include a geological survey of the new site to ensure that it’s stable. And if it is moved it may need to be lifted up and placed on a new pedestal…. There are a lot of variables.”

Mr. Wilson said the critical first step is for the Coast Guard to list the property as excess property, after which either the town or a group that includes the town will make an application to take ownership of the lighthouse.

The process will likely involve extensive research, fund-raising and a public relations campaign, and will likely involve representatives from the town, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

Mr. Wilson said one important decision will be whether the lighthouse will be used as a functional navigational tool, a decision that is likely to be ultimately made by the Coast Guard.

He said it was possible for a local entity or group to take ownership of the lighthouse, but then enter into an agreement with the Coast Guard to allow them to continue to manage and maintain the lighthouse as a navigational tool.

Mr. Wilson said that he hopes the lighthouse continues to burn brightly. “Personally, I love it when you are coming home from a long day and you set sail and you look over and see the Nobska lighthouse, and then you look and see Gay Head Light and you know you are heading home,” he said. “It’s comforting.”

Difficult move

David Nathans, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, agreed that accelerating erosion posed a dire threat to the lighthouse and agreed it needed to be moved within the next one to three years.

The museum has leased the lighthouse from the U.S. Coast Guard since 1994 and holds educational tours of the structure during the summer months.

In October, Mr. Nathans appeared before the Aquinnah selectmen and said it was only a matter of time before the lighthouse fell off the Gay Head cliffs, at which time he estimated it may cost as much as $3 million to move the tower.

“By the end of this past summer the issue had clearly become worrisome for us, and it had quickly moved beyond just studying the situation to the point where we needed to take some action,” Mr. Nathans said.

Mr. Nathans said he was pleased that Mr. Keating has gotten involved. “It’s all good news in the sense that it is raising the bar and speed at which this is happening,” he said. “I think Congressman Keating has seen what is happening down there, and I think he understands it is better for a town or a county or local group to take responsibility. And if you are going to take responsibility, of course it is better owning it because then you have more control with the decision making.”

Mr. Nathans said he was hopeful that Mr. Keating could help locate federal funds and resources to assist in moving of the lighthouse. He noted there is a local precedent; the town of Edgartown applied for ownership of the Edgartown Lighthouse after the Coast Guard listed it as excess property last May.

However, he said that it’s hard to tell exactly how long it will before the Gay Head light tumbles into the ocean. The rate of erosion below at the base of the cliffs is not directly related to the speed near the top of the cliff.

The erosion rate at the base of the cliff is influenced by wave action and storm surges, while the erosion rate near the top is influenced by soil composites, vegetation and rain, Mr. Nathans said.

“What we know is that it takes a certain square footage around to safely restore and remove the lighthouse,” he said. “There is no exact science to predicting Mother Nature, but we have to do some active planning and have to get started.”

Mr. Nathans said finding a new location may prove to be as difficult as moving the lighthouse from the old one. “For each new location you must consider the implications, and each location has a new set of implications,” he said.

“There are different considerations and costs if you are moving it uphill or downhill,” he said. “There are different considerations and costs if you are moving it one direction 40 feet than if you are moving it 40 feet in another direction.”