Moving a Landmark: Keeping Gay Head Light Safe From Erosion

Nearly 160 years old, Gay Head Light sits at the western end of Martha's Vineyard - reflecting the latest battle to save part of New England's history and heritage.

"It ceased to be just an navigational aid a long, long time ago," said Bow Van Riper of the Martha's Vineyard Museum.

The 51-foot brick structure sits atop the colorful Gay Head Cliffs, created 20 millions years ago as the glaciers receded. Erosion is now the biggest worry for the cliffs and Gay Head Light, which is still operated by the U.S. Coast Guard.

At a cost of more than $3 million, much of it raised privately, the light is set to be pulled away from the edge of the cliffs, which lose at least two feet every year to erosion.

Gay Head Light is a mere 46 feet from tumbling head over heels into Vineyard Sound.

"Mother Nature's clock has been ticking and she's the one that sets the timetable," said Len Butler of the Gay Head Lighthouse Committee. "We couldn't take our chances and predict, 'Oh, we've got two feet a year, we'll be OK for another 10 years. It doesn't work like that."

Since the late 19th century, the beacon has been a tourist attraction, drawing people over the years to the remote up-island town of Aquinnah, home to the Wampanoag tribe of Gay Head.

Not the original, the light replaced a wooden one that was erected in 1799. Construction of the current lighthouse was completed in 1865 to help ships navigate around the Elizabeth Islands, once consider some of the busiest and dangerous shipping lanes in the country.

"The lighthouse was the reference point that mariners had to be able to pick out the fog and the rain and the gloom in order to safely continue moving east through Vineyard Sound," said Van Riper.

They expect to begin the move on June 10. The lighthouse will travel 129 feet to its new resting spot, where it is expected to be safe from erosion for at least the next 150 years.

A New York company will move the 450-ton light. Nearly 20 years ago, Highland Light, the oldest lighthouse on Cape Cod, was relocated. That was done with a specially designed system of rails. That's what will happen on the Vineyard, too.

Butler washed ashore in 1970 and raised his family in the shadow of the light. There are four other lighthouses on Martha's Vineyard, but the one in Aquinnah - the oldest one - belongs to the entire island.

"This is not only the town, but it's also the whole island's heritage in this light," said Butler.

It's not only the island's heritage - it's all of New England's.

With videographer John Hammann

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