Gay Head Lighthouse move is on track

The lighthouse will remain at the same elevation despite its relocation back from the cliff.

An aerial view Monday of the Gay Head Lighthouse and the preparations underway for its move back from the edge of the cliff. — Photo by Drew Kinsman

Updated Thursday, May 14, 2:57 pm.

International Chimney Corp. is poised to move the Gay Head Lighthouse back from its precarious perch on the edge of the unstable clay bluff to a safer location some 130 feet back, where it will sit on a newly poured concrete platform. The target date for the move is June 10.

Tyler Finkle, company project manager, said the lighthouse, which weighs an estimated 450 tons, will take 6 to 8 days to move over a custom-constructed rail bed.

Much of the prep work for the move has been completed. John Keene Excavation of West Tisbury has constructed a roadway from the lighthouse to the platform, and cleared earth in a 30-foot radius from the lighthouse base. All the material excavated is being stockpiled, and will be replaced when the lighthouse has been relocated.

“Soon as that lighthouse starts to roll, we’re going to start backfilling that cliffside,” Richard Pomroy of Pomroy and Associates said at a press conference last week.

Mr. Pomroy is project manager for the town of Aquinnah. “The idea is to get all the material back in place the way it came out, in the same strata and the same compaction ratio, so the bluff will be reconstructed almost as natural as possible,” he said.

Native plant life from the worksite has been extracted by Landscope of Edgartown, and is being preserved nearby in hay bale pens on the edge of Aquinnah Circle.

Soil-borne lead paint from the long-gone wood keeper’s quarters, as well as from the lighthouse itself, is in the process of being disposed of safely. TMC Environmental is about to chemically treat more of it where it lies in piles of earth that are on tarps on the job site. The treatment binds the lead to a compound, making it safe for transport to an approved off-Island landfill.

Engineering done well

International Chimney Corp. is familiar with tricky moving projects. The company moved the Schifter house on Chappaquiddick, and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina.

The plan for moving Gay Head Light is to carefully and incrementally dig around the lighthouse and insert a grid of I-beams under the two 24-inch layers of granite that underpin the lighthouse. The I-beams will be buttressed by screw jacks and oak blocks.

A huge amount of weight inside the structure rests on a 12-inch central column that holds up the staircase, the watch-level floor, and the lantern-room floor. To compensate for that, a compression collar will be fastened to the column. Two beams will be snugged under the collar to shift the load off the column to the walls, where the beams below will be able to shoulder the weight.

Once the lighthouse is safely on the crisscrossed bed of beams, it will be pushed down a steel track that’s been capped with hardened plate steel. Angled 5-foot-long hydraulic rams will do the pushing, while Hillman rollers, which look like collections of shiny metal rolling pins, will do the wheeling. The lighthouse will arrive at the platform or pad at the same elevation it left — 122 feet above sea level — yet it will be a foot higher than it was on the cliffside, because surveys revealed that not only had it settled sometime after 1856, when it was completed, but clay filler had been spread around its base as a hedge against groundwater leaking inside. As a result of the extra foot, a dressed granite base that had been lost below grade will be visible in its new location.

The platform or pad that will be home to the lighthouse is being made by Atlantic Concrete Construction of East Wareham, the same company that made the dolphin clusters at the Steamship Authority’s Vineyard Haven and Woods Hole terminals.

The lighthouse beacon was snuffed out for the duration of the move. That created a significant complication. Unlike many other lighthouses, Gay Head Light is not obsolete. It guards the western entrance to Vineyard Sound.

“It’s an active aid to navigation,” Gay Head Lighthouse committee chairman Len Butler said. “It’s considered by the Coast Guard one of the most important lighthouses on the East Coast, and always has been.”

To solve the problem, the Coast Guard erected a temporary steel tower on the cliffs complete with a blinking light. When the lighthouse is relocated, the Coast Guard will disassemble the tower and reactivate the light and its familiar sweeping red-and-white beam.

“After two and a half years of planning, it’s great to see this thing actually taking place,” Mr. Butler said.

A previous version of this story misspelled Richard Pomroy’s last name, and the name of his company. Pomroy is correct.