Gay Head Lighthouse move is complete

After two and a half years of planning, it took only three days to move the lighthouse back from the cliffside brink.

The Island sentinel, safe and sound. — Photo by Drew Kinsman

On Saturday, the Gay Head Light reached its final stop on a 129-foot journey back from the site it had occupied since 1844, and which after more than a century of erosion was precariously close to the edge of the cliff.

After two and a half years of planning, fundraising, and many sleepless nights for those most intimately involved with the project to move the iconic structure, and three days of movement foot by foot along a steel track, the lighthouse was safe. The journey began on Thursday when workers with International Chimney Corp. and Expert House Movers began to move the historic beacon, while a crowd that included Island residents, visitors, and reporters gathered to watch.

The building, which weighs in at 400 tons, traveled along metal I-beams on a path chosen for both its elevation and for the stability of the clay. Project managers said they hope the new location will be stable for another 150 years.

Ahead of schedule, at 11:10 am Saturday morning, it was time to celebrate.

As a crowd of onlookers gathered, project leader Lenny Butler of Aquinnah popped the cork on a bottle of champagne, and smashed it against the lighthouse to the cheers of the crowd.

Tuesday evening, Mr. Butler, a foreman for John G. Early Co., a well-respected Island builder, had just returned home from what his wife Mallory laughingly referred to as his day job. In the months leading up to the move, Mr. Butler was the town’s steady hand on the tiller. It was a responsibility that consumed countless hours.

“Those three days during the move, I almost felt like I was in a dream state,” Mr. Butler said in a telephone conversation. “I was literally two feet off the ground the whole time.”

The lighthouse now rests on its granite foundation on a grid of steel beams above a concrete slab platform. The next step, Mr. Butler said, is to build a foundation to fill what is a six-foot gap between the bottom of the lighthouse and the slab.

Bricklayers will lay solid concrete blocks in between the support beams. Once the blocks have picked up the load, the beams will be removed and the remaining gaps filled in.

“Then we can start backfilling it and landscaping it,” Mr. Butler said, “back to the point where we can open it to the public.”

Asked if there was one moment during the course of the project that was particularly unnerving, Mr. Butler did not hesitate.

John Keene had excavated all of the soil around the lighthouse in preparation for inserting the steel framework that would be needed to support the building under the granite foundation.

“Then Jerry Matyiko [owner of Expert House Movers] came in with his machinery and started digging down the additional six feet that was required for him to place his move steel. When he dug that down, and it [the lighthouse] was just sitting on, like, a cake of solid clay, and then he started to tunnel underneath … the first time that I could see clear underneath the lighthouse from one side to the other with no steel or any other support other than that piece of clay it was sitting on — I got a little anxious.”

He spent a restless night concerned about what might happen if one side of the clay platform began to crumble.

“I drove up the next morning just praying that when I came up over the hill, I was going to see it standing.”

As the process unfolded and he saw how the steel framework was inserted beam by beam, he began to relax. “They knew what they were doing,” he said.

[See a timelapse video of the entire move here. ]

Still, he did not fully relax until the lighthouse was resting over the concrete pad on Saturday morning.

Mr. Butler said it was a very complex project, one that involved many different stakeholders and unforeseen complications.

Asked when he will consider his job done, Mr. Butler said, “The first night that I can go back to sleep with the light sweeping through my bedroom window again, that’s when I’ll feel that my job is done. I’ve had trouble sleeping lately, and I thought it was the stress of the project, but maybe it was because after 46 years, I just missed that light coming through the window.”