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The Changing Shape of the Cape & Islands: The Changing Shape of the Gay Head cliffs, Martha’s Vineyard

Editor’s note: This is the 10th in a series of articles covering the region’s dramatically changing coastline. Click here to see all of the articles.

Gay Head cliffs Martha’s Vineyard

This photo show the historic Gay Head Lighthouse prior to its move back from an eroding cliff face in 2015. Photo courtesy shutterstock/matthew bird

Forty-six feet. In 2014 only 46 feet stood between the historic Gay Head Lighthouse on the west coast of Martha’s Vineyard and a retreating cliff face. Erosion had eaten away at the once ample cliff-side, leaving the historic light in a precarious situation. Racing against time and tide, local residents and community groups got involved, obtaining ownership of the light and raising the funds necessary to move it back from the cliff and out of harm’s way.

The current Gay Head Lighthouse was built in 1852 and completed in 1856. The structure stands along the beautiful clay cliffs in Aquinnah, the Vineyard’s westernmost town. The 52-foot light replaced the area’s first lighthouse, an octagonal wooden structure which was built in 1799 to guide whaling ships and other vessels passing by Gay Head, and to help them steer clear of Devil’s Bridge, a dangerous shoal of boulders that extends northeast off the coast of Aquinnah for about a mile. Even with the lighthouse in place, several ships have been lost in the area over the years, including the 275-foot SS City of Columbus, which ran into the boulders on January 18, 1884. The wreck claimed the lives of 103 passengers and crew—and remains one of the worst maritime disasters in New England history.

Many are likely aware of the move of Gay Head Light back from the cliff’s edge in 2015, but erosion in the area is nothing new. In 1844, just 45 years after the original light was built, it was moved back 75 feet from the eroding cliffs. That would not solve the problem forever, though. According to research conducted by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, from 1845 to 1979 the Gay Head cliffs continued to erode at a rate of two and one-half feet per year. In recent years, storms have done a number on the cliffs, often sending large chunks of clay and soil crashing down the cliff.

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