Due to steady and increasing erosion at the Gay Head Cliffs, the Gay Head Light will need to be moved in the next one to three years and could cost as much as $3 million to relocate, the Aquinnah board of selectmen learned this week.
At the board’s weekly meeting on Tuesday, Martha’s Vineyard Museum director David Nathans said the move of the historic lighthouse is only a matter of time.
“We’ve been watching the erosion or slumping... and it’s just a matter of time and mother nature before it will create a tremendous hazard to the continued standing of that lighthouse,” Mr. Nathans said.
The discussion of the pending move comes just two weeks after the selectmen learned the U.S. Coast Guard, which currently owns the building, would likely look for new owners sometime in the next two years. The museum has leased the lighthouse from the Coast Guard since 1994, and has said it will work with the town and interested parties to secure that the building stays within town ownership.
After the original 1799 wooden Gay Head Light fell into disrepair, a new brick structure was built in 1856 where it remains today. The light was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
The museum consulted with International Chimney Corporation of Buffalo, New York to help in the impending move, Mr. Nathans said. The company, which was responsible for moving the Sankaty Head Light on Nantucket, visited the site this summer.
“The reason for getting International Chimney was for them to have their eyes on the site to determine if it was a feasible thing to do,” lighthouse keeper Richard Skidmore said. “In the proposal they said it’s something that has to be attended to, nothing can be waited on. There’s another 12 or 15 feet we could lose and that would get us to the limit.”
A location is still being determined but several options are being considered in the direct vicinity. Regardless of the new location, the lighthouse will likely have to be placed on a pedestal to ensure that the light can be seen over the cliffs.
The museum is also looking into creating a barricade within the soil between the lighthouse and the cliff “that would significantly slow what’s happening,” Mr. Nathans said.
Last year voters approved monies for a three-year study to better understand the rate of erosion at the cliffs, “but we may need to take action before that is finished,” Mr. Nathans said.
The first round of results taken this past summer will not be available until next summer.
Funding sources for the move could include the federal government, state entities, foundations and private individuals, Mr. Nathans said after the meeting. “All of it should be on the table.” Mr. Nathans said he expects the Coast Guard to be “helpful in the process” but “I don’t think they have deep pockets.”
“No one is necessarily responsible for moving it,” he continued. “It is owned by the Coast Guard and under the current situation you would think the owner would have the most responsibility. I think they will be a participant but it seemed clear that the Coast Guard is happy to have local organizations who care about it to help in this process, and that’s why I think they suggested in the next year or two the ownership to transfer. It’s easier to imagine the entities that own it to take more responsibility.”
International Chimney Corporation made a report with several recommendations to the museum after their summer visit, Mr. Nathans said. A comprehensive study of the topography of the potential new locations will need to be conducted and “how they might need to prepare staging it” is needed first. The report is not being made public.
But before the lighthouse is moved, a full restoration is needed to stabilize the building.
A 2004 engineering study showed the lighthouse needed $500,000 worth of repairs. Minor work, including repairing of areas that were getting weaker, was done last year with help from community preservation act funds, “but I think it was a bandaid rather than a total repair,” Mr. Nathans said. A full restoration is needed before the relocation “so it could be moved and not crumble.”
The Aquinnah selectmen plan to advertise for a Gay Head Light committee in the coming weeks to address the ownership transfer and relocation of the lighthouse.