Keeper of history

Richard Skidmore tends to more than the Gay Head Lighthouse.

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Richard Skidmore is lightkeeper of the Gay Head Lighthouse. —Gabrielle Mannino

It was a dark and stormy night … well, it was a blustery, rainy gray afternoon when Richard Skidmore and I took shelter inside the Gay Head Lighthouse to talk about what it means to be the lighthouse keeper today, considering it became automated in 1956.

“The light was electrified because the federal government no longer wanted to support the lighthouse keepers’ families in a house in this remote location,” Skidmore explained. But in order to automate the lantern, the town had to get electricity, because there was none in Gay Head at the time. Once it was automated, the traditional lighthouse keeper was no longer needed. “There was just a motor that turned the light and a bulb. That was the extent of the automation,” Skidmore said. “The Coast Guard would come and inspect it every three months, and whatever needed to be taken care of would be.” The Gay Head Lighthouse remains fully automated, but Skidmore’s job is not in name only.

We ascended the tightly spiraled stairs, then, climbing the narrow ladder, we finally reached our destination. The lantern room was a sensory experience. There was the roaring wind and pelting rain hitting the glass-paneled wall that lent a 360º bird’s-eye view of the Cliffs, the Atlantic, Vineyard Sound, beaches, and rolling green Aquinnah landscape receding down-Island. The two rotating beacons radiated a blinding light but welcome warmth every time they came around.

From this perch, I asked Skidmore what his job as a modern lighthouse keeper entailed.

“I’m the line of first defense. I’m in charge of the lighthouse park, the enclosed property around the lighthouse itself, as well as the actual building. When I say ‘line of first defense,’ I mean that if anything fails, I’m the first one who knows about it,” he said. “If I can deal with it, I do. If it’s beyond what I’ve been trained for, then the Coast Guard gets called in, and they’ve always been able to solve the issue, so the light keeps going.”

He added, “I got trained on the job. I’ve been here 28 years, and when I had a failure and had to contact the Coast Guard, if they weren’t able to get here quick enough, they would give me instructions on what to do. And if something else failed, it might happen again, and so I gained bits and pieces over the years.” Naively I asked if he wrote things down in order to remember them. He laughed and replied emphatically, “Oh, no. It’s something you remember. It’s my job.”

Skidmore is also responsible for the fencing, stone walls, gates, and pathways. He made an unexpected discovery in April 2010 that unwittingly changed the history of the Gay Head lighthouse: “I walked onto the property, as I do every year after the winter storms are over, and at the fence line I looked to my left, and there was 40 feet of fence missing. So I walked over to the edge and, of course, there it was at the bottom of the Cliffs. We had lost about 18 inches of land from the edge. It had just sheared off. It was a shock to see this, and that made me, for the first time, concerned about the encroaching edge. I measured it at that point, and it was 53 feet from the lighthouse to the edge.”

He continued, “I started thinking about it, and my first thought was not moving the lighthouse, it was about how we were going to stop the erosion. I got a bunch of experts to come and give me their wisdom on what could be done to retard this erosion and keep the light safe. They had various schemes, but all of them ended with, ‘And when that erodes away, what happens next?’ What happened in every instance was that it would have eventually eroded to the point where I could no longer move the light. So, moving the light became the only option by 2012.” What followed is the long and amazing tale of moving the light to its current location. It’s been written about at length, and there’s the new film, “Keepers of the Light,” by Island documentarians Liz Witham and Ken Wentworth.

“Another aspect of my keeping duties is assisting the town’s tour coordinator, Deborah Medders. Every one of the guides has a genuine interest in the history of the site, and their enthusiasm brings it alive,” Skidmore said. “I try to ensure we’re all on the same page with our facts and statistics, but new facts can emerge as well. Recently a young visitor entering the Light asked, ‘How much does the Lighthouse weigh in elephants?’ By the time he came out of the building, research had been done, and it is now known how many of each of the three types of elephants it would take to match the weight of Gay Head Light. Your readers will have to visit to get the answer.”

Skidmore said the Island’s history comes to life when you have iconic historical lighthouses: “If we didn’t have this, you just don’t have an anchor for these stories from this history. The lighthouse is necessary to the fabric of life here on the Island. A good part of my job is conveying that to school kids, and it sets a baseline of knowledge that keeps getting perpetuated through every generation. It’s important because, yeah, we moved the lighthouse this time, but it’s going to need to be moved again in maybe 100 or 150 years. But it will have to be moved. So keeping all this history alive is going to help that happen more easily than it did for us.”

He said he wanted people to remember that “our living history is exemplified in a brick tower on the edge of a cliff.”

The Aquinnah Lighthouse is open daily 10 am to 4 pm through Monday, Oct. 8.