Thursday afternoon International Chimney Corp. began to move the Gay Head Lighthouse back from the location it has occupied for more than a century.
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Thursday morning, with the iconic Gay Head Lighthouse in the background, a crowd that included Island residents, visitors, and reporters gathered on the platform that will be its final destination after its three day journey.
Against cloudy skies, project managers reiterated the history of the lighthouse as a guide for ships approaching Vineyard Sound from the west, and as a symbol of Island unity.
The building, which weighs in at 400 tons, is being slid, via metal I-beams, across a path chosen for both its elevation and for the stability of the clay. One critical element is the lack of groundwater, which is responsible for erosion. The project managers said they hope the new location will be stable for another 150 years.
The lighthouse will sit about 129 feet back from where it has been located since 1844.
“It had to be done,” said Brian Vanderhoop, Aquinnah harbormaster and shellfish constable. Mr. Vanderhoop said he is both happy and sad about the move. “I grew up with it right where it is, you know? The light always comes through my window, ever since I was a little boy.”
Though the lighthouse is being moved back away from the cliffs, the light will remain at the same elevation, as mandated by the Coast Guard.
The Save the Light committee, having set an initial goal of $3 million has now set an end goal of $4 million to complete the project.
“I was surprised they hit the three million dollar goal so fast,” said Mr. Vanderhoop, who participated in the town meetings leading up to the project.
Project leaders plan to open the Gay Head Lighthouse to the public by July, when they said there would be a ceremony to celebrate the project. A marker will be placed where the lighthouse once rested.
“It’s a historical thing of beauty,” said Mr. Vanderhoop.
Gay Head Light is supported by a grid of I-beams under two 24-inch layers of granite that underpin the lighthouse. The I-beams are buttressed by screw jacks and oak blocks.
The lighthouse 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 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.
The Coast Guard has 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.
For more than 200 years, the Gay Head Lighthouse has provided a welcome beacon to mariners in the waters off the west end of Martha’s Vineyard. First lit with whale oil, then kerosene, it was later outfitted with one of the first Fresnel lenses in the United States.
Gay Head Light was established in 1799, and consisted of a keeper’s dwelling and an octagonal tower, which guided mariners past Devil’s Bridge, a dangerous rock ledge that extends out to the northwest from the cliffs, and presents a hazard at the west entrance to Vineyard Sound.
In 1796, Peleg Coffin of Nantucket wrote to his congressman in Washington, requesting a lighthouse at Gay Head for “the convenience and interest of Nantucket.”
In 1799, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts deeded two acres and four rods to the federal government for the site of the lighthouse. President John Adams approved a contract with Martin Lincoln of Hingham to build a wooden lighthouse structure and a keeper’s cottage and outbuildings. Ebenezer Skiff was appointed keeper, and on Nov. 7th the light was turned on for the first time. It most likely had a “spider” lamp of several wicks in a shallow circular pan filled with sperm whale oil, according to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
In 1813, a new system was installed that relied on 10 lamps, each with a reflector, mounted to a chandelier that revolved every four minutes.
In 1844, the light tower was moved back from the cliff edge 75 feet by John Mayhew of Edgartown at a cost of $386.87.
By July 1854, the light had been upgraded to 14 lamps and larger reflectors. In August, Congress approved a request for $30,000 for the total replacement of the tower, dwelling house, light, and first-order Fresnel lens.
In 1852, a Lighthouse Board report listed Gay Head Light as one of the most important lighthouses on the Atlantic Coast due to the amount of marine traffic that passed beneath its gaze.
Because of its strategic location, Gay Head Light received one of the first Fresnel lenses in the United States in 1854. The conical brick tower was constructed to properly house the enormous lens in 1856.
On May 15, 1874, the light was changed from just “flashing white” to “three whites and one red” to distinguish Gay Head and eliminate confusion with any other flashes. The automatic DCB-224 lens, modern for its day, replaced the original Fresnel lens in 1952, and the station was unmanned just four years later.
The Coast Guard donated the Fresnel lens to the Dukes County Historical Society, now the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
Several years ago, the red brick beacon that has guided mariners since 1856 sat only 50 feet from the edge of a cliff that is receding about two feet every year. Experts said the lighthouse would need to be moved within the next couple of years if it was to be saved.
At a special town meeting on Feb. 5, 2013, Aquinnah voters agreed to purchase the Gay Head Lighthouse and initiate the process to preserve, restore, and relocate it.
The Save the Gay Head Light Committee set about raising the estimated cost of $3 million needed to move the structure to a more stable location.
In a letter dated Sept. 12, 2014, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell agreed to transfer ownership of the Gay Head Light from the federal government to the town of Aquinnah. The transfer was a critical milestone in the effort to restore and move the historic lighthouse. The town is now responsible for maintaining the structure as a historic landmark and a functioning aid to navigation for mariners.