The Edgartown Lighthouse, the prominent beacon overlooking the outer Edgartown harbor that has long been a symbol of the town, is going to be put up to bid by the federal government, with the town and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum expressing interest in taking stewardship of the landmark.
The U.S. General Services Administration announced last week that it is looking for caretakers for several historic lighthouses that are no longer considered “mission critical” to the Coast Guard, including Edgartown Light. As part of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, the lighthouses are offered at no cost to eligible state or local governments, nonprofit corporations, historic preservation groups or community development organizations.
The program to transfer ownership of the lighthouses is part of a plan to cut government real estate costs.
The Martha’s Vineyard Museum oversees the care of the Edgartown Lighthouse, as well as the East Chop Light and the Gay Head Light.
At the Monday meeting of the Edgartown selectmen, town administrator Pam Dolby told the board about the government’s intention to transfer ownership of the lighthouse. For “the town of Edgartown to have no ownership of such an important part of town worries me a little bit,” Mrs. Dolby said.
Mrs. Dolby said she was surprised that the town wasn’t notified directly about government plans to get rid of the lighthouse.
“It’s is a symbol of Edgartown,” said selectman and board chairman Michael Donaroma.
“You’re absolutely right, the town of Edgartown should own the lighthouse,” selectman Art Smadbeck added.
The board voted to have Mrs. Dolby look into the town acquiring the lighthouse. Mrs. Dolby told the Gazette Thursday that the town has already sent a letter to put in a request for the lighthouse, with the intention to keep the same stewardship arrangement with the museum.
Sheldon Hackney, chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum board of directors, said the museum is also interested in taking stewardship of the lighthouse. “We have been operating it for a little while now,” he said.
“It has been a significant fixture in Edgartown for a long time,” Mr. Hackney said. “It’s representative of the seafaring history of the Island as a whole, and Edgartown in particular.”
“It gets you to think about what it meant to go to sea,” he added, and now that the lighthouse is open to the public, people can experience it, to an extent.
Since the lighthouse preservation act was passed in 2000, 84 lighthouses have been transferred to new stewards, who are required to maintain historic preservation standards, according to the General Services Administration.
Organizations interested in acquiring a lighthouse have 60 days to submit a letter expressing interest in the property and to complete a rigorous application process. If no acceptable steward comes forward, the lighthouse is auctioned to the general public.
The Edgartown Lighthouse is one of 12 historic lighthouses on the Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes that need new stewards. Two other Massachusetts lighthouses, Butler Flats Light in New Bedford and Graves Light in the Boston Harbor Islands, are also on the list.
The original Edgartown light station, located a quarter mile out in Edgartown harbor, was built in 1828. In 1830, the first bridge was built between the shore and the lighthouse. In 1938, the Lighthouse Service of the Department of Commerce voted to demolish it, but Gazette editor Henry Beetle Hough rallied the town and called for a referendum on keeping it, with Edgartown voters supporting the lighthouse by a vote of 301-0. But then the lighthouse was badly damaged in the 1938 hurricane, and was replaced with the Essex light from Ipswich, a cast iron lighthouse built in 1875. The Ipswich light was dismantled and barged to Edgartown. Thirty-six years later, the lighthouse was embattled again when plans surfaced to fill in the wetlands between the lighthouse and the Harbor View Hotel to make way for homes and a tennis court. After a 10-year fight, again led by Mr. Hough, the plan was defeated.
In the 1980s, the Coast Guard stopped funding lighthouse maintenance. Since then, the lighthouse has been maintained by town funds, including money from the Community Preservation Act. In 2007, the lighthouse received a $250,000 restoration through Community Preservation Act funds, including the installation of a staircase. The lighthouse was opened to the public after that time.