Lighthouse keeper Richard Skidmore looks over the Gay Head cliffs as he walks around the Gay Head Light beacon Tuesday in Aquinnah. The lighthouse is in danger as erosion lays claim to the cliffs upon which the 1852 structure stands.
Cape Cod Times/Merrily Cassidy

AQUINNAH — In the three centuries it has stood above the iconic cliffs, the Gay Head Light has saved hundreds of ships from the treacherous stretch of rocks known as the Devil’s Bridge.

Now, the eroding cliffs are getting closer and closer to the 1856 brick tower, and it’s in need of saving.

“We don’t have a lot of time to deal with this,” David Nathans, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, said.

Since 1993, the museum has leased the Gay Head, Edgartown and East Chop lighthouses from the Coast Guard.

And over those years, museum officials have watched as the Gay Head cliffs have slowly eroded, making the light’s future uncertain.

Gay Head Light’s history is deeply entwined with the history of the island.

The lighthouse was the first on the island. By the mid-1850s, it was America’s busiest in terms of traffic along the coast because of its location along the Boston-New York trade route, Craig Dripps, chairman of the museum’s lighthouse committee, said.

It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.

About a year ago, as the erosion issue became more dire, museum officials began discussing the building’s future with the Coast Guard, particularly transferring ownership to a public entity such as the town of Aquinnah, Nathans said. In its plan, the museum would continue to maintain the light.

Coast Guard officials did not return messages from the Times this week.

Under the National Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, lighthouses can be declared excess and given to a government agency or nonprofit.

The Coast Guard has not officially declared the Gay Head Light surplus. Neither has it transferred the building to the federal General Services Administration, as would be required, Patrick Sclafani, spokesman for the GSA’s New England office, said.

This summer, the Edgartown lighthouse was made available by the GSA, and the town of Edgartown now has a pending application to take it over. “It’s a model that makes some sense for Gay Head, too,” Nathans said.

But the famed Gay Head cliffs won’t allow the process to wait much longer.

“You can see how chunks of land have just skidded down the cliffs,” Betsey Mayhew, the museum’s finance and lighthouse operations director, said on a recent visit to the light.

postcard view

On a muggy summer’s day, the breeze coming over the Gay Head cliffs is welcome, but on this December morning, there was a significant temperature drop between Vineyard Haven and Aquinnah.

From the lighthouse’s top floor, about 40 feet in the air, there is a postcard-perfect view of the nearly turquoise waters of Vineyard Sound.

The 360-degree view from the lighthouse gives a glimpse of many of the island’s homes, hidden from view at ground level by centuries-old trees.

To the left is the island known as Nomans Land. At one point, Dripps said pointing to the barren area, the island was divided in half — one side, a bird sanctuary, and the other, a strafing area for practicing war pilots.

Straight ahead, it’s easy to see the dramatic changes the Gay Head cliffs have gone through, even in just the past few years.

A fence that once was on the ruddy-colored bluffs now lies in a crater 20 feet away.

Farther away, a World War II observation box sits on the shore below, waves lapping at it. During his childhood, the box was at the top of the cliffs, Dripps said.

A geologist is in the first year of a three-year erosion study of the cliffs. He has estimated that over the long term, the cliffs have lost an average of 1 to 2 feet per year, lighthouse keeper Richard Skidmore said.

About 50 feet separate the lighthouse from the edge of the cliffs.

The company that would move the structure, International Chimney Corp., needs there to be a 40-foot perimeter surrounding the light to do the job. With the current rate of erosion, that doesn’t leave much time to make a decision.

“So you say there’s 50 feet, but really you only have 10,” Nathans said.

cost of restoration

Along with a move, the lighthouse also needs heavy restoration work.
The total cost could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, Nathans said.

Other Cape and Islands lighthouses have been saved from the threat of erosion, including Highland Light in North Truro, which was rolled 450 feet back from a cliff in 1996 by International Chimney.

The move took 18 days and cost $1.5 million.

Fundraising for the Gay Head move and restoration would need to be done in tandem with transfer of ownership, Mayhew said.

Even now, the lighthouse is an important part of the Vineyard’s modern industry: tourism.

In the summer of 2012, the first year the museum opened Gay Head Light seven days a week, it had 20,000 visitors, Mayhew said.

Mayhew and others hope the lighthouse’s history and popularity will lead island residents to embrace the transfer and help the museum raise money for its move and restoration.

“It’s a community icon,” she said. “I think we hope that it’s a community effort.”


  • Established in 1799 with a keeper’s house and octagonal tower
  • The lantern and gallery were first rebuilt in 1832.
  • The current conical, 51-foot tower was built in 1856 to house a then-modern Fresnel lens, named after its inventor, Augustin-Jean Fresnel.
  • Three consecutive lightkeepers died, prompting officials to rebuild a higher and drier keeper’s house in 1902

Automatic optics were installed in 1952, and the light was not manned after 1956. It remains an active aid to navigation.

Source: National Park Service

By Heather Wysocki