Gay Head Light Secured for Move – MV Gazette

Worker secures brick tower Monday afternoon. Lighthouse wears wooden corset beneath the lantern. – Timothy Johnson

The Gay Head Light relocation project is under way.

On Monday morning, the sounds of brush cutters, chain saws and jackhammers came down from the small hill where the lighthouse stood beneath a darkening sky. Four companies were busily preparing the structure and its surroundings for the move, expected to begin in late May.

Workers from Landscope Inc. in Edgartown were clearing away brush and digging up shrubs and other plants from around the site. Much of the existing vegetation will be stored in a fenced-in area at the Aquinnah Circle and replanted after the move.

International Chimney Corporation, which will handle the move, was preparing the structure inside and out. Loose mortar already has been replaced, and on Saturday the second level of the lighthouse, just below the light room, was fitted with a wooden corset, held tightly by cables. Inside, a worker in a white jumpsuit was pounding away at a concrete block with a jackhammer.

After two and a half years of planning, it’s full speed ahead in project to move old lighthouse. — Timothy Johnson

“It’s exciting after two and a half years of planning and testing and everything to actually be making it happen,” said Len Butler, chairman of the lighthouse relocation committee, who was onsite Monday.

Many wooden stakes with colored ribbons marked the boundaries of the excavation, old foundations and other features. Larger stakes marked the new foundation, about 135 feet east of the lighthouse, and an observation well that will detect groundwater. The lighthouse stands just 46 feet from the eroding cliffs.

Work had been delayed a few weeks this spring after the site was identified as containing habitat for the endangered broad tinker’s weed. But the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has approved a mitigation plan that involves placing nearby habitat into conservation.

“Everything is full speed ahead,” Mr. Butler said.

The company Tetra Tech, along with John Keene Excavation in West Tisbury, were working to further define an area of lead-contaminated soil that will be removed during the project and then replaced. Permanently removing the soil was estimated to cost about $600,000. The contamination was not considered a health risk.

The Public Archaeology Lab of Pawtucket, R.I., has surveyed the area and mapped out the brick foundation of a former lightkeeper’s building. A member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) was present Monday to observe the excavation.

Workers in green Landscope sweatshirts were unrolling silt fencing around the site perimeter and lugging clumps of Panicum grass, wrapped in burlap, down from the hillside.

“Ultimately the landscaping is going to be minimal,” Mr. Butler said, noting that the goal was to preserve the site’s original character. He added that some of the broad tinker’s weed would likely survive the transport as well.

A time-lapse camera will be installed on a 12-foot pole just east of the new location, and a live webcam will be installed at the bottom of the Circle, looking up toward the lighthouse.

Some work had continued while the town waited for the final state approval. Two weeks ago, the US Coast Guard fully extinguished the Gay Head Light, for the first time since 1989, and activated a temporary beacon near the shops at the Circle. Last week the company Radar Solutions scanned the old foundations, including one that supported a shorter brick lighthouse during World War II. That foundation will be removed, since it is within the excavation area.

Radar Solutions also investigated an underground structure just west of the Gay Head Light, which has been exposed in recent years and now protrudes from the cliff. “It turns out it wasn’t very big,” Mr. Butler said. He was still waiting for the final results.

An earlier landscaping plan called for the preservation of the original granite foundation for use as a circular bench to memorialize the 1856 location. But International Chimney now plans to move the entire foundation, which includes two courses of granite and extends about four feet underground.

A new granite bench will mark the original location, Mr. Butler said.

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Final Hurdle Cleared for Gay Head Light Move - MV Gazette

gay head lighthouse

Excavation work begins Monday for lighthouse relocation, which will take place over the next several weeks. – Alison Mead

The Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has approved an 11th-hour conservation plan for protecting the endangered broad tinker’s weed near the Gay Head Light, clearing the way for the final phases of the lighthouse relocation project.

The town of Aquinnah must now place 2.1 acres of habitat near the lighthouse into conservation, as an alternative to a site survey that would have taken place in June, when broad tinker’s weed appears. “That gives us the green light to go ahead with soil disturbance,” Len Butler, chairman of the lighthouse relocation committee, said Friday. “We are going to actually break ground on Monday.”

Without the state permit, which is expected to be filed today, work around the lighthouse has been at a near standstill. Last week, members of the US Coast Guard Aid to Navigation Team in Woods Hole extinguished the Gay Head Light and activated a temporary beacon near the shops at Aquinnah Circle.

Triosteum perfoliatum.

Mr. Butler said the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program had worked to expedite the permitting process in light of the urgency of the move. The 1856 brick-and-mortar lighthouse stands just 46 feet from the eroding cliffs and will be relocated 135 feet to the east, to a spot the U.S. Geological Survey expects to be safe from erosion for at least 140 years.

A landscaping plan calls for the removal of existing vegetation, which would be stored at the Circle and replaced after the move. That work is expected to begin Monday. Mr. Butler said there was a good chance that any broad tinker’s weed at the site would survive the process. But none of the plants have been observed this year, he said, since it is too early in the season.

The 2.1 acres of conservation land will span three town-owned parcels near the Circle. The town will maintain the area with annual mowings and by putting up signs restricting foot traffic. Much of the area to be protected runs along the cliffs, which Mr. Butler said was ideal. “We were happy to put that in conservation because we don’t want people going up to the edge of the cliff,” he said. The landscaping plan also calls for a wooden fence and a hedge of rosa rugosa near the cliffs.

After the vegetation is removed, the topsoil will be stripped away under the supervision of Public Archaeology Lab of Pawtucket, R.I., and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). PAL has already completed a spot survey of the site, as well as a more focused survey of the foundation of a former lightkeeper’s quarters.

International Chimney Corporation of Buffalo, N.Y., which is handling the move, has begun preparing the structure by replacing the mortar around loose bricks. The windows and doors of the structure will also be reinforced.

The excavation will start at the relocation end of the site, where a new concrete foundation will be poured. Mr. Butler said that has to happen first, since it would require time to set. A corridor will be dug between the lighthouse and the new location to support a bed of steel beams to guide the lighthouse to its new home. The move itself is expected to begin in late May. “But you never know what you will encounter,” Mr. Butler said.

“Hopefully everything will go smoothly now that all the hurdles have been overcome.”

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The Light Goes Dark

On April 16, 2015, the Gay Head Light’s famous red/white flashing beacon was shut down, prior to the long process of moving the building to its new, safer location away from the cliff-edge.

Island photographer Albert O. Fischer captured the scene for us.

  • Last moment of the beacon's red flash, April 16, 2015
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Flipping the Switch: Gay Head Light Dimmed to Prepare for Move – MV Gazette

gay head lighthouse beacon switched off

At 10:33 a.m. Thursday, Gay Head Light beacon was switched off in anticipation of lighthouse move – Albert O. Fischer


Richard Skidmore, keeper of the Gay Head Light, stood in front of a small control box just below the spinning beacon above, with his finger on a black switch marked “main light.”

Coast Guard Aid to Navigation team activate a temporary beacon on the lookout. — Albert O. Fischer

“One, two, three, goodnight light!” he said, and flipped the switch.

At 10:33 a.m. Thursday, the automated double-cannon beacon installed in the Gay Head Light in 1989 stopped spinning and the iconic red-and-white signal went out.

“No turning back now,” said Len Butler, who is helping to lead the Gay Head Light relocation project.

Two members of the U.S. Coast Guard Aid to Navigation Team in Woods Hole were on hand to fully shut down the light and to activate a temporary beacon past the shops at Aquinnah Circle. A small group of filmmakers and photographers had gathered for the historic moment.

Lighthouse keeper Richard Skidmore was the one to turn off the light. — Albert O. Fischer

People climbed up the white metal steps to the light room, where heat was still emanating from the two barrels. “You can’t often stare into this thing,” said Mr. Skidmore, peering into one of the lenses, with the lightbulbs and mechanical parts visible behind the glass.

This spring the 1856 brick-and-masonry lighthouse will be moved 135 feet to save it from the eroding cliffs. All around the site on Thursday were wooden stakes marking the boundaries of the excavation, the foundation of a former lightkeeper’s quarters, and other features. Last weekend, summer-like crowds made their last visit to the site before the move begins.

Mr. Skidmore believed the last time the lighthouse had been shut down and secured was in 1989, when an earlier light was replaced. That also marked a transition from the historic signal pattern of three white lights and one red to the current red-and-white pattern.

Up the road from the lighthouse, Fred Blumberg and Jason Lawrence of the Aid to Navigation Team strapped into climbing harnesses and prepared to activate the temporary beacon, at the top of a metal pole secured to a large stone block. Across the way, the Gay Head Light stood silent, echoed by a nearly waveless ocean below.

“It looks like a lake out here today,” said Mr. Butler.

At the top of the pole, Mr. Blumberg used an electronic device to activate the beacon, which is photosensitive and comes on when the natural lights fades. It shares the Gay Head Light’s emergency beacon signal, with a single white flash every seven seconds. Mr. Blumberg tested it several times by covering it with a black bag.

“It’s blinking,” he reported to the onlookers below.


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Move Begins for Gay Head Light – MV Gazette

Fencing went up around the 1856 lighthouse this week as final preparations begin for move. Timothy Johnson

With the ground thawing and spring in the air, final preparations for the Gay Head Light relocation project have begun. Archaeologists have completed a survey of the site and the U.S. Coast Guard plans to install a temporary beacon today, weather permitting.

The last day to visit the lighthouse in its current location will be Saturday from 2 to 5 p.m. Town officials expect the actual move to begin sometime in May.

An excavation area around the lighthouse has been staked out and a number of square pits that were dug by Public Archaeology Lab of Pawtucket, R.I., have been filled in. “You can’t even tell they were there,” Len Butler, chairman of the lighthouse relocation committee, said Monday.

A large area surrounding the 1856 lighthouse, along with a portion of Aquinnah Circle, has been fenced off. A sign near the lighthouse reads, “Closed for the Season.” Traffic may pass through from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but may be held up as materials are carried to and from the site. The VTA will have a temporary bus stop at the foot of the circle for use between 7 p.m. and midnight.

In February, the lighthouse was formally transferred from the U.S. General Services Administration to the town, ending a yearlong process involving local, state and federal authorities. The U.S. Coast Guard had declared the lighthouse surplus property in 2013.

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Island Prepares for Gay Head Light Relocation

Saturday, April 11 is Final Chance to Visit Lighthouse in Its Current Location

Islanders will have a final opportunity to visit the Gay Head Lighthouse in its current location on Saturday, April 11 when lighthouse keepers Richard Skidmore and Joan LeLacheur will open the building from 2 to 5 p.m. Admission will be free.

The Gay Head Light open house will be the culmination of a week of activity to prepare for the actual relocation of the island icon in late May. The U.S. Coast Guard will be erecting a temporary beacon on the Gay Head Cliffs overlook on Tuesday, April 7. The metal pole will have an LED light on top that will be illuminated and start flashing during the week of April 13, after the sweeping beacon of the lighthouse goes dark. Officials estimate the temporary beacon will be in use until the end of June.


The Gay Head Lighthouse, a Martha’s Vineyard treasure and one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places of 2013, currently sits 46 feet (Aug 2013) from an eroding cliff, and geological experts recommend it should be moved before the area around it is not stable enough to safely do so. The Save the Gay Head Lighthouse Committee is working to save this iconic structure and its working navigational beacon, which has stood at the picturesque cliffs of the westernmost tip of the island since 1799 and was replaced with the current brick lighthouse in 1854. The committee’s objective is to move and restore the Gay Head Lighthouse to a location that will sustain it for many generations. The fundraising goal to cover these costs is $3 million. For more information or to make a donation, visit

Visit the lighthouse between now and the week of April 13, when the old beacon will go dark before the move. Use the form below to send us your photos!

Last Chance Photos

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Island Students Lend a Creative Hand to Gay Head Light Effort

Ella Keene holds up her copy of I Will Save You!, a book devoted to the Gay Head Light and created by Island students.

Most authors have to wait decades for their first book launch. But for students at the Chilmark School, the public charter school, and the regional high school, that milestone took place Friday afternoon.

I Will Save You!, a 65-page volume devoted to the Gay Head Light, features drawings, poems, and short stories by 60 students. It arrives in Island bookstores on Monday, and proceeds from sales of the $20 book will go towards the lighthouse effort.

Fan Ogilvie reveals first copies of I Will Save You! — Ivy Ashe

Last year, lighthouse keeper Richard Skidmore and poet Fan Ogilvie visited classrooms at the three schools, explaining the history of the red-brick lighthouse at the tip of the Island from its beginnings in 1799 to its current precarious state. The lighthouse must be moved from its current spot on the Gay Head Cliffs to a site where it is not vulnerable to the forces of erosion, which is taking its toll on the cliffs. Mr. Skidmore said that groundbreaking for the new site is expected to take place in about two weeks.

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Island Students Pen Art and Poems for Gay Head Lighthouse

March 13th saw the launch of “I Will Save You,” poems and drawings  by students from all over Martha’s Vineyard.

All of the artwork and poems in the book were created by students from different schools around the island. The book was edited by Fan Ogilvie, educator and poet, and Richard Skidmore, Gay Head Lighthouse Keeper and poet. The book launched March 13, 2015 at Pathways in Chilmark with a poetry reading by the poets featured in the book.

Books will be available for purchase at island bookstores for $20 and proceeds benefit the Save the Gay Head Lighthouse project.  Special thanks to Pathways Projects Institutes, Marianne Goldberg, James Weiss, Susan Stevens, Bob Moore, Amy Reece, Christine Ferrone, Todd Derry, and all the students who shared their art to help save the Light!


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Town Announces Transfer of Ownership of the Gay Head Light

Gay Head Light

The town of Aquinnah announces that it is now the owner of the historic Gay Head Lighthouse. Almost one year to the day from when the Town submitted it’s application for ownership to the National Park Service, it has received word that all parties have signed off on an agreement clearing the way for the transference. On Friday 2/20/15, the Town received a fully executed deed to the structure and property from the General Services Administration.

After recommendations for this transfer from the Director of the NPS and the Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, a Memorandum of Agreement between the Town .the GSA, the NPS, the Mass. Historic Commission, the USCG, the ACHP (Advisor Council on Historic Preservation) and the Wampanoag Tribe was constructed and approved by all parties. This is required by the terms of the NHLPA (National Historic Lighthouse Protection Act) for the transference and continued treatment of historic lighthouses. This agreement covers the terms and conditions of the transfer and the plans for future management, maintenance and care for the structure in perpetuity.

This transaction clears the way for the planned relocation of the Gay Head Light away from the eroding Gay Head Cliffs. The lighthouse is currently a mere 46 ‘ from the crumbling bluff 100’ above the Atlantic Ocean. The pre move activities are scheduled to begin as soon as weather conditions permit this spring. The move to a location 200’ inland from the cliff is scheduled for May.

The town appreciates the efforts of all parties involved in this effort enabling this project to commence. Having completed the complex procedures involved from application to ownership in one year has to be a record time for such transfers. This speaks to the awareness of all the Federal, State and local authorities of the urgency of this move to beat Mother Nature’s ticking clock.

This is a great and historic day for the Town of Aquinnah, the Wampanoag Tribe, the Island of Martha’s Vineyard and especially for the the iconic Gay Head Light.

As it is now assured to keep on shining for generations to come.

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