Gay Head Lighthouse is set to be moved next month. Preparations are underway to make the move. A wooden corset has been wrapped around a portion of the lighthouse to stabilize the brickwork. Merrily Cassidy/Cape Cod Times
AQUINNAH — After 2½ years of advocacy and nonstop fundraising, the end is finally in sight for members of the Save the Gay Head Lighthouse Committee.
Thanks to $3 million in donations, taxpayer money and grants, the historic beacon won’t be demolished or tumble over the rapidly eroding cliff. Instead, on June 10, the 400-ton, 160-year-old lighthouse will begin a six-day trek 129 feet inland to a new foundation.
“This island has really come together in an unprecedented way to support this project,” said Megan Bodnar, co-chairwoman of the fundraising committee. “It really has been an amazing outpouring of support.”
The 19th-century whaling trade vastly increase boat traffic around Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. In 1854 Congress approved spending $30,000 to build a new brick lighthouse to replace a wooden one that the second president of the United States, John Adams, had had built in 1799. It was considered the most important lighthouse north of New York at the time because tens of thousands of ships a year passed by on their way from New York to Boston and on the return from whaling voyages, said Len Butler, co-chairman of the lighthouse relocation committee.
Its beam warned passing ships of not only the danger of land nearby but the spine of rocks that extended into Vineyard Sound, causing many shipwrecks in the area.Both the lighthouse and the Gay Head cliffs, with their colorful bands of clay, are on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2013, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the 52-foot-high Gay Head lighthouse as one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the country.
Click for video: Preparations to move the lighthouse
The designation kicked off the $3 million fundraising effort by the town-appointed Lighthouse Committee. There was a sense of urgency to the effort because the lighthouse was nearing the edge, and movers require at least 30 feet of solid ground to use the heavy machinery needed for excavation.
Although the average erosion rate is less than 2 feet a year, the area is subject to slides that cut deep ravines into the cliff face near the lighthouse site. Big winter storms pounded the toe of the cliffs, steepening them, making them more susceptible to collapse at the same time that geologists said groundwater was seeping down into clay layers, making it easier for them to break loose and slide. The lighthouse is now 46 feet from the cliff’s edge.
In February, the town of Aquinnah took ownership of the lighthouse, which will still be maintained as an aid to navigation by the Coast Guard, from the U.S. Department of the Interior.
All six Martha’s Vineyard towns contributed Community of Preservation Act money which, including the state matching funds, totaled $760,000. More than 1,000 private donors, along with benefit concerts, road races, a kayak circumnavigation of the island and even a book of writings and poems about the lighthouse all helped raise $2 million. State and federal grants accounted for the remainder, Bodnar said.
Last week, workers began excavating a deep trench through the 20-foot-high embankment that will be the route the lighthouse will follow to its new home on a thick cement slab that has already been poured. Soon after the trench is completed, they will begin putting down a “road” of wooden timbers and steel over which the lighthouse will pass on steel beams and rollers, pushed by hydraulic jacks at a glacial rate.
“You could put a quarter on the rail and watch it squish,” project manager Tyler Finkle of International Chimney, the company overseeing the move, said of the rails the lighthouse will traverse to its new home.
Even as the lighthouse move begins, fundraising continues because of unexpected costs to deal with lead paint contamination at the site of the demolished lighthouse keeper’s home, and the possibility that the site could be habitat for tinker’s weed, which the state lists as an endangered plant. This past week, Aquinnah town meeting approved allocating $60,000 in Community Preservation Act money for the project, and a large donation from an anonymous donor lowered the deficit to finish the project from $400,000 to $300,000.
— Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter:@dougfrasercct.