AQUINNAH, Mass. – A Martha’s Vineyard lighthouse that is among the most endangered historic landmarks in the U.S. began its gradual march away from a rapidly eroding cliffside on Thursday.
Powerful hydraulic pistons inched the 160-year-old Gay Head Lighthouse roughly 5 feet along steel rails lathered with soap just before noon. The 52-foot-high, 400-ton brick-and-mortar structure is expected to arrive at its final destination – a concrete pad about 135 feet due southeast -as soon as Saturday.
Crews painstakingly dug under the lighthouse earlier this month to lift it about 6 feet off the ground, using a network of hydraulic jacks and wood-and-steel beams.
The beacon, located on the sparsely populated, western edge of the resort island, has been a critical waypoint for mariners since the peak of the whaling trade in the 19th century, warning ships of the coastline and treacherous shoal that extends about a half-mile into the water.
Today, the lighthouse and its dramatic, brilliantly colored cliffside perch are a must-see destination for tourists.
Buddy Vanderhoop, a longtime charter fishing captain whose great uncle was the lighthouse’s first keeper, was among a handful of locals on hand Thursday to observe the start of the move.
“That light right here has been significant for me finding my way back home on more than a thousand occasions,” he said. “You know exactly where you are when you see the red and the white (beam). That was the homestretch.”
Paula Eisenberg, who has lived down the road from the lighthouse since 2002, said the beacon has been a comforting and treasured part of her time on the island.
“At night, my husband and I can see the sweep of the lighthouse beam through our bedroom window,” she said. “It’s just a big part of our lives out here and we couldn’t bear the thought of losing it.”
Moving the lighthouse became necessary in recent years because constant landslides caused by ocean waves and groundwater have severely eroded the cliffs, oftentimes at a rate of several feet per year.
The lighthouse is now just 46 feet from the clay-and-sandstone cliff’s edge. Within two years, advocates feared, it would have been too close to the edge to move safely.
“This was a proud symbol of our maritime heritage,” said Len Butler, chairman of a town committee overseeing the relocation project. “We couldn’t let that happen.”
The roughly $3.4 million project is being paid for largely through donations, grants and state and federal funding, though supporters say they’re still about $200,000 shy of their fundraising mark.
Richard Pomroy, the project’s general manager, said workers hope to have the lighthouse back open to the public by early July.
The project’s crew includes seasoned movers that have relocated five lighthouses, including the famed Cape Hatteras Light in North Carolina.
The Gay Head Lighthouse has stood vigil over Vineyard Sound since 1856 and a beacon has existed on the cliffs since 1799.