For more than 150 years, Gay Head Light has stood high atop the cliffs of Martha’s Vineyard, its guiding light sweeping out to sea. But time has steadily chipped away the clay bluffs, threatening to send the iconic landmark to a watery demise.
Now, residents are racing against the clock to save the historic lighthouse, seeking to move the 400-ton structure to safer ground.
On Tuesday, selectmen in the town of Aquinnah approved a new location 150 feet away, a meadow that would allow the lighthouse to retain its current height. A group working to preserve the 1856 lighthouse has raised more than half of the $3 million needed, bolstered by contributions from the island’s six towns.
“It’s a shared heritage for all of us,” said Len Butler of the Save the Gay Head Lighthouse committee.
The money will also finance an extensive renovation of the lighthouse.
While it seeks various approvals for the project, the group has enlisted a New York company that specializes in moving lighthouses, a laborious task that involves lifting the tower onto a system of rollers, then pulling it a few feet at a time.
In 1999, International Chimney Corp. moved Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina more than a half-mile in 23 days, an undertaking dubbed “the move of the century.” The tallest brick lighthouse in the country, the black-and-white striped beacon weighs 4,830 tons.
“This is a lightweight compared to that,” Butler quipped.
The company has also overseen the relocations of Highland Light in Truro and Nauset Light in Eastham, as well as Sankaty Head Lighthouse in Nantucket, which in 2007 was moved away from an eroded bluff.
But time is of the essence. The Martha’s Vineyard lighthouse now stands less than 50 feet from the cliff, and the equipment needed to move it safely requires about 40 feet of space.
“We have a window of about a year-and-a-half to do this,” Butler said.
The move would bring the lighthouse a stone’s throw to the southeast. There it should be safe for at least 140 years, according to an analysis of previous erosion rates.
Technological advances have reduced the need for lighthouses, and the Coast Guard has sold or transferred more than 100 since 2000. But Gay Head Light, also known as Aquinnah Light, remains active.
“It’s still one of the most important lights on the East Coast,” Butler said. “This is a significant aid for navigation and will continue to be so.”
From its new location, the lighthouse will still be visible from the water from all vantage points, preservationists say.
The Coast Guard had planned to replace the lighthouse with a modern signal that preservationists say would lack the original’s comforting charm.
“I do not know Aquinnah without the lighthouse,” said Beverly Wright, a former chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head and chairwoman of the lighthouse group.
This month the group held a fund-raiser, featuring singer Rosanne Cash, that brought in more than $130,000 for the project.
A road race is slated for October, and the group plans an island-wide appeal by year’s end, Wright said.
Organizers plan to have the new property double as a park, where people can picnic, watch the sun set, even get married.
“It’s an iconic structure for the town,” said Jim Newman, chairman of the town’s board of selectmen. “Many of us see the sweep of the light at night, through the top of the trees.”
Growing up, Wright and her friends would play “jump the beam” with the lighthouse signal. Now, she said, she drifts off to sleep with its beams drifting through her bedroom window. And her grandchildren think the tower was built just for them.
“We don’t want to lose it,” she said.