The changing shape of the Cape & Islands | Cape Cod LIFE August 2016

After the move of the lighthouse. Photo courtesy of Paul Rifkin

Byron Stone, a research geologist with the United States Geological Society, says erosion in this area is not just a factor of wind and waves. “There are freshwater springs located inside of the bluff which drain out along the face,” Stone says. “The fine materials in the layers underground hold up springs the size of soccer fields. The bluff is 120 feet above sea level, and the perched water tables sit between 40 to 70 feet below where the lighthouse stood. The rain seeps down into these tables and can cause landslides of the bluff. The erosion problems are more an issue of the rain above than the waves below.” 

As the cliff continued to erode, some in recent decades began to sound the alarm that the lighthouse may have to be moved once again—but first, the structure had to be saved from demolition. In 1985 the Coast Guard planned to tear down the light and replace it with a simple metal pole with a blinking signal. Len Butler, chairman of the Gay Head Light Advisory Board, says this is not uncommon, as six to 12 lighthouses across the country—often lights that no longer are being used as navigational aides—are disposed of each year due to the cost of maintaining them.

Instead of being razed, the light was transferred in 1985, via lease, from the Coast Guard to the Vineyard Environmental Research Institute (VERI), a non-profit organization that conducts oceanographic research including studying the effects of ocean storms on the erosion of the island. VERI was granted ownership rights for 35 years. In 1994, the lease on the light was again transferred, this time to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. When the Coast Guard deemed the light “surplus property” in 2013, the Town of Aquinnah applied for and was granted outright ownership of the structure, effective in February of 2015.

In 2010 Richard Skidmore, keeper of the light since 1990, was walking on a path along the bluff when he noticed that about 40 feet of fencing had tumbled down the bluff face. The lighthouse needed to be moved—and fast, Skidmore thought. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Army Corps of Engineers had studied the area and concluded that the lighthouse was in danger of falling over the edge within 40 to 50 years. The toppled fence was the wake-up call the community needed.