The sea versus Gay Head Lighthouse

Eroding coastal cliffs mean that if the Gay Head Lighthouse is not moved within 18 to 24 months, it will tumble into the sea.
Alex Brandon/AP Photo
Eroding coastal cliffs mean that if the Gay Head Lighthouse is not moved within 18 to 24 months, it will tumble into the sea.

When Beverly Wright, 70, was a child, she played by Gay Head Light on Martha’s Vineyard. As day turned to dusk, she and the local children climbed the clay cliffs to meet by the brick tower. More than half a century later, Wright’s days remain marked by the lighthouse: Its light sweeps through her bedroom every night, sending her to sleep.

But the lighthouse may not be around much longer.

On Wednesday, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Gay Head Light in Aquinnah to its 2013 list of the most endangered historic places in the United States, on a list of 11 sites that includes Gay Head Light and one other structure in New England, an abolitionist meeting house in Maine.


The lighthouse stands less than 50 feet from the edge of the cliff, said Alicia Leuba, field director for the National Trust. But cliffs can erode 2 to 6 feet each year, she said, and moving the lighthouse requires at least 40 feet of space to accommodate construction equipment.

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If the lighthouse is not moved within 18 to 24 months, she said, it will soon tumble into the sea.

Townspeople in Aquinnah, including members of the local government, have begun a fund-raising campaign to move the lighthouse, a structure they call an icon of maritime navigation on the island and an important site for the Wampanoag tribe.

“The lighthouse has been a part of my community, a part of my tribal community, and a part of the island community as a whole,” said Wright, who serves as chairwoman of the Gay Head Lighthouse Advisory Committee and the local Board of Selectmen.

“We’re happy the National Trust recognized us. We want the world to help us save our little lighthouse here.”


The lighthouse, first lit in 1856, was the first on the island, said David Nathans, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, which has leased the lighthouse from the Coast Guard for almost 25 years. It began shining its light, he said, when Vineyard Sound was one of the busiest waterways in the world.

Gay Head’s is also thought to be the first — and possibly the only — lighthouse to have had a Native American keeper, he said. Charles Vanderhoop of the Wampanoag tribe became head keeper in 1920 and served for 13 years.

The cliffs surrounding the lighthouse have long been a part of tribal history and legend, said Bettina Washington, historic preservation officer for the local Wampanoags. The town’s name, Aquinnah, is a Wampanoag term meaning “end of the island” or “land under the hill.”

“The lighthouse has been a great focal point for the tribe,” Washington said. “We gather by the lighthouse; some of us get married by the lighthouse. Without it, an important piece of our history would be gone.”

The tribe and the museum submitted separate applications to the National Trust to support naming the lighthouse to the list of endangered places.

National Trust for Historic Preservation via Associated Press
Also on the endangered list is the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland, Maine, once part of the Underground Railroad.

Meanwhile, another endangered site sits a few hours north: the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland, Maine.

Built in 1828, the house was a key stop on the Underground Railroad. Several giants of the abolitionist movement spoke at the house, including William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. But now supporters lack the money to restore and maintain the site.

Brent Leggs, a field officer for the National Trust, said about $2.5 million more is needed to maintain the meeting house long term. Without that money, Maine might lose an important piece of regional history, he said.

“This site was a cornerstone of the African-American community for many generations,” he said. “It makes visible African-American history in a place like Maine, where it is often invisible.”

But being named to the list is not enough.

Saving the lighthouse, for example, will require moving the 400-ton structure away from the edge of the cliff, a process that the town’s administrator, Adam Wilson, said could cost up to $3 million.

Although money has yet to be raised, he said, the town has already picked out at least two potential sites where the lighthouse could be relocated. One, a swath of land not suitable for construction, sits 100 feet farther from the edge and could probably be bought for just $17,000.

The other, about 150 feet farther from the edge, has two houses on it and would have to be purchased for about $1 million. If that site is chosen, one house would be razed to make space for the lighthouse, while the other house might be converted into a gift shop.

Other costs may come from restoring the lighthouse or building a foundation pedestal so that the lighthouse does not lose elevation as it moves farther from the shore.

Wilson said he hopes the community can raise enough money to save the lighthouse. A 22-year resident of Martha’s Vineyard, Wilson remembers seeing the lighthouse for the first time when he was a boy, vacationing nearby. As his family drove by the lookout near the island’s western edge, Wilson was mesmerized by the rotating beacon and the red and white lights.

Last summer, the lighthouse received more than 20,000 visitors.

“I can’t imagine Aquinnah without the lighthouse,” he said.


11 most endangered historic places

 Gay Head Light, Aquinnah, Mass.

 Abyssinian Meeting House, Portland, Maine

 Mountain View Black Officers’ Club, Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

 The James River, James City County, Va.

 San José Church, San Juan, Puerto Rico

 Rancho Cucamonga Chinatown House, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

 The Astrodome, Houston.

 Village of Mariemont, Mariemont, Ohio

 Historic rural schoolhouses of Montana, Montana

 Kake Cannery, Kake, Alaska

 Worldport Terminal at JFK Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York City

SOURCE: The National Trust for Historic Preservation

Nikita Lalwani can be reached at