The Changing Shape of the Cape & Islands: The Changing Shape of the Gay Head cliffs, Martha’s Vineyard
In 2013 the Save the Gay Head Light Committee was formed to oversee the task of procuring ownership of the light from the Coast Guard—and then raising the $3.4 million it would cost to move it. Time was of the essence, Butler recalls. “Thirty-feet of clearance was needed to get the equipment in to excavate around the lighthouse,” Butler says, adding that at that point in 2013 the light stood just 46 feet from the edge. Butler, who also works as a contractor, knew that professionals needed to be called in to move the light because the work, he says, involves “a completely different level of expertise.”
Hired to do the job was the International Chimney Corporation of Williamsville, New York. In business since 1927, the company looks for historical projects to take on, specifically those involving lighthouses. Joe Jakubik manages the company’s historical preservation division—and has overseen some fascinating lighthouse moves, including that of North Carolina’s historic Cape Hatteras Light in 1989. The company also moved both Highland Light in Truro and Nauset Light in Eastham in 1996.
“We learned our lesson with each lighthouse move,” Jakubik says. “With Highland and Nauset, the foundations of the lighthouses came up from the ground with [the structures]. That is not supposed to happen, but you learn as you go. With Gay Head, we got smart and got all the way underneath the lighthouse to account for the foundation. The move went just as planned, but for a few minor machine malfunctions.”
The plan for Gay Head was to move the lighthouse 129 feet back from the cliff along a spine of hard red clay that runs back from the cliff, thus avoiding any potential collapses along the way due to trapped springs underground. The move took three days and was completed on May 30, 2015. According to Butler, the 400-ton structure touched down at its new home without a speck of damage.
With the move complete, Butler says there is still some restoration work, including structural repairs, needed to completely restore Gay Head Light to its 1856 glory. Metal railings were recently installed atop the lighthouse—now open to the public daily—and Butler says more restoration work will continue this fall. In its new location, the light is believed to be out of harm’s way for 150 years.
For Butler, a native of Kentucky who moved to the Vineyard in 1971, this effort to save the light was an accomplishment for all involved. “This is an iconic symbol of the maritime heritage of Martha’s Vineyard,” Butler says. “The light is what first attracted me to the island. Standing here by the cliffs with my wife . . . I knew this was the place I wanted to live.”
Christopher Setterlund is a freelance writer from South Yarmouth.
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