Moving lighthouses


The Island’s smallest town has accomplished a very big feat. Today, the Gay Head Lighthouse will be inched back from the precipice it now overlooks, in a testament to the ability of Islanders to accomplish great tasks.

It is worth recalling that it was only three years ago, with the cliff face only 50 feet away and erosion claiming two feet per year, that the concerned residents of Aquinnah set out to save the Gay Head Lighthouse.

They faced no easy challenge. There were state, federal, and money hurdles to overcome. Undeterred, a dedicated group of year-round and seasonal residents set themselves to the task.

First they sought the support of the town. At a special town meeting on Feb. 5, 2013, Aquinnah voters agreed to purchase the lighthouse from the federal government and initiate the process to preserve, restore, and relocate it. The cost was an estimated $3 million.

That April, the Coast Guard announced plans to replace the light’s aging DCB-224 optic, a rotating mechanism that relies on a bank of 1,000-watt incandescent bulbs set behind red and white filters, with stationary 80-watt LED bulbs. From a navigational standpoint, as far as the Coast Guard was concerned, while the iconic brick structure was nice, a blinking LED light on a metal tower would work just fine.

In June, in response to Island concerns, the Coast Guard announced a change of course. It would continue to refurbish the aging mechanism, at least for the immediate future.

That same month, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Gay Head Lighthouse to its 2013 list of America’s 11 “Most Endangered Historic Places,” bolstering the preservation effort.

Not just anyone can move a lighthouse. It is a specialized task. International Chimney Corp. signed on to do the job.

The Save the Gay Head Lighthouse Committee asked for a onetime contribution of 18 percent of each town’s estimated 2014 Community Preservation Act annual budgets to help move the Island landmark. In a series of town meetings, voters readily agreed, raising $500,000.

There was still a long way to go. Committee members reached out to residents and the wider seasonal community. Fundraising events generated some cash, but it was the generosity of individual contributors that made the difference.

This past February, the General Services Administration, the agency that manages the property of the U.S. government, transferred the lighthouse deed to the town for the sum of $1.

All appeared to be on track. The discovery of lead paint in the soil from the lighthouse and the old keeper’s cottage around the lighthouse, which needed to be removed, added an unexpected and costly complication.

Then the Massachusetts Natural Heritage Endangered Species Program sent a letter informing the town that the project would affect the habitat of broad tinker’s weed (Triosteum perfoliatum), a species state-listed as endangered and protected by the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. There was talk of the need to conduct a botanical survey during the period from June 1 to Nov. 15, when the weed begins to bloom and grow. That would have delayed the planned relocation of the lighthouse, and increased the risk that the eroding cliffs would advance further toward the light. Thankfully, common sense, not always in evidence, prevailed, and a solution was found that added another unexpected expense.

The committee, having successfully met its goal of $3 million in cash and pledges, was faced with raising an additional $400,000. They went back at it, and are now $200,000 short.

Each dollar raised has represented phone calls, committee meetings, one-on-one appeals, emails sent and answered, and all of the small tasks that would be easy to overlook, now that the finish line is near.

The entire project is the latest example of the Vineyard’s remarkable ability to marshal local resources and talents to accomplish a goal, whether it be new lockers for the Martha’s Vineyard Ice Arena or a new Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.

The earliest structure consisted of a keeper’s dwelling and an octagonal wood 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.

Henry Franklin Norton (1888-1961) of Oak Bluffs, a teacher and historian, tells us, “The first tower was 40 feet high; the lantern was reached by a series of ladders. There were 14 whale oil lamps in this lantern, which was suspended from eight large pine beams.”

The lantern revolved on wooden wheels, but not always easily when the weather was foggy or very cold and the wheels did not work. “At such times the lighthouse keeper [Samuel Flanders] would be obliged to turn the lantern by hand all night. When the keeper was sick or needed help, he called on his wife, and many a night Mrs. Flanders, wife of Samuel Flanders, turned the light from midnight to dawn.”

There is no need to turn the wheel by hand, but the dedication to the light remains undimmed. Through the efforts of the Save the Gay Head Light Committee, the Gay Head Lighthouse will continue to overlook the cliff where it has sat, guiding mariners in one form or another, since 1799. The committee deserves our support and thanks.