AQUINNAH — With the press of a lever, a crack team of contractors Thursday began the slow, delicate process of saving the iconic Gay Head Lighthouse from the steady erosion of the surrounding cliffs.
The lever sent fluids pumping into special hydraulic motors that over the next three or four days will move the 400-ton beacon roughly a foot every five minutes, ensuring the 158-year-old national historic landmark will continue casting its reassuring beams to vessels more than 20 miles out to sea.
The brick lighthouse will travel over a specially designed track of steel beams 124 feet to its new perch over Vineyard Sound.
“This is a historic moment for the town of Aquinnah and the entire island,” said Len Butler, of the Save the Gay Head Lighthouse Committee. “We’re preserving a symbol of our proud, shared maritime heritage.”
Over the past three years, as the town realized the eroding cliffs were forcing it to
act, Butler and other local officials raised more than $3 million in private donations, grants, and public dollars to launch the technically challenging move.
“This has been an islandwide effort,” said Adam Wilson, administrator for the town of Aquinnah, noting that each of the island’s six towns has provided some of their tax dollars to help pay for the project. “I think everyone realized it would be catastrophic to lose the lighthouse.”
When officials began looking into preserving the lighthouse in 2012, they learned the contractors would need 30 feet to dig a trench to install the jacks that would lift the granite foundation and the tracks it would travel upon. That meant if the cliffs eroded another 16 feet, workers would no longer be able to move the lighthouse.
With chunks of rock falling into the sea every year in unpredictable and sometimes sizable amounts, officials sought to expedite the move and enlisted International Chimney Corp., a New York firm that has moved six lighthouses since 1992.
The company’s biggest job was moving the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina, the nation’s tallest brick lighthouse and 10 times the weight of the Gay Head structure. International Chimney crews in 1999 moved Cape Hatteras Lighthouse more than a half-mile in 23 days.
The company has also moved Highland Light in Truro, Nauset Light in Eastham, and Sankaty Head Lighthouse in Nantucket, which was transported away from an eroding bluff in 2007.
“Each project is unique and requires us to overcome different obstacles,” said Tyler Finkle, manager of the Gay Head project for International Chimney.
Among the challenges was getting the permits to do the work.
The town had to obtain the land from the federal government, which has operated a lighthouse on Gay Head since 1799, and then it had to clean up a significant amount of lead marring the soil.
Town officials also had to make arrangements to provide land elsewhere to transplant tinker’s weed, an endangered wild plant, from the area that had to be excavated.
But with broad local, state, and federal support for the move, the permits came quickly and the work took less than a month before the lighthouse was ready to be moved.
Making it easier, the contractors found the hammered granite foundation to be in good enough shape that it could move with the lighthouse. When the tower reaches its new location sometime over the weekend, the contractors will prop it up on a new bed of concrete, allowing it to loom 53 feet over the multicolored cliffs — a foot higher than when it was erected in 1856.
“This has been the jewel of Martha’s Vineyard,” said George Sourati, the project’s civil engineer. “We’re glad it will continue to be.”
The lighthouse, which will continue to be operated by the Coast Guard to warn ships of the submerged rocks nearby, should be safe from the advancing erosion for another 150 years, town officials said.
After the move, the town will spend several hundred thousand dollars on renovating the masonry to expose the original brick and brown stone, replace the power plant, and add landscaping to make it feel like more of a park.
The fog-piercing light will remain visible from all vantage points.
Town officials said they expect the lighthouse to be back in service and open to the public in July.
Richard Skidmore, the lighthouse keeper for the past 25 years, said the move is the culmination of all his years looking out for the landmark.
“My job is to look after the lighthouse and make sure it stays here,” he said. “This is what I was working for.”