The Gay Head Light, the beacon of light at the furthest end of the Island overlooking the historic clay cliffs, is likely to be put up to bid by the federal government sometime in the next year, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum confirmed this week.
The disposition of the lighthouse follows the announcement by the U.S. General Services Agency (GSA) last spring that it was looking to transfer ownership of 12 historic lighthouses across the country, including the Edgartown Light, too. The lighthouses are no longer considered “mission critical” to the U.S. Coast Guard, which owns the lighthouses, and the disposition program is part of a plan to reduce government real estate costs.
The first lighthouse in Gay Head went into service in 1799, the first on the Vineyard, to help boat traffic navigate the hazardous waters known as Devil’s Bridge. President John Adams signed the deed that took two acres of land above the cliffs for the lighthouse. Alexander Hamilton paid for the wooden structure and Paul Revere supplied the metal for the roof. The original wood structure fell into disrepair and a new brick lighthouse was built in 1856, where it remains today. The light was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
The museum has assumed stewardship of the lighthouse since 1994.
Under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, local governments, nonprofits, historic preservation groups or community development organizations are offered the lighthouses at no cost. The National Lighthouse Preservation Act limits 12 light stations to be auctioned annually. If a non-profit organization or local government does not come forward or is not selected, the government places the lighthouse up for bid for private ownership.
The Coast Guard has not reported the Gay Head Lighthouse as excess property to the GSA yet, a GSA spokesperson said yesterday, but museum director David Nathans said the Coast Guard has informed him of the agency’s plan to put the historic light out to bid sometime in the next year or two. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum leases the Edgartown, Gay Head and East Chop lighthouses from the Coast Guard.
“We had some discussions with the Coast Guard earlier this year when we heard that Edgartown might be coming up,” Mr. Nathans said. “We asked about the other two and they said ‘we have no plans.’ Since then we’ve had subsequent phone conversations about Gay Head about engineering and restoration needs for the erosion issues, and they have suggested that they had preliminary plans for the possibility of it coming soon for their disposition cycle.”
“My sense from the conversations is that over the next year or two Gay Head will be more seriously considered as moving into this cycle, but it takes time on their part,” he continued.
Mr. Nathans said the museum will look to the Edgartown Light to serve as a model. The Edgartown Light was listed for disposition last May. The museum has already filed an application for ownership, and the town of Edgartown plans to file an application before the January deadline. Pam Dolby, town administrator, said the purchase will require a town meeting vote and Edgartown may have to file an extension request to wait for annual town meeting in April. How the stewardship of the light will be handled between the two is as yet unclear.
News of the pending auction of the Gay Head Light reached the Aquinnah selectmen at their weekly meeting on Tuesday. In response to the possible sale, the selectmen voted to create a Gay Head Lighthouse committee. The committee’s charge is still under consideration by the selectmen, but could include preservation, erosion studies and the possible need to move the lighthouse, and financing, they said.
“It has to be saved,” selectman Jim Newman said.
The Gay Head Light has been the center of town discussions for the past few years as erosion has forced the town to consider the need to move the lighthouse. Last April, voters approved a three-year geological study to track the erosion of the cliffs.
Mr. Nathans said he was pleased the selectmen will form a committee to tackle the issue, one “that we may be facing sooner than we’d like to.”
“The museum staff and I are very concerned about the preservation and interpretation of what we think is an icon, not to just the Island but to New England,” he said. “It’s such a unique lighthouse, in a unique location.”
by Remy Tumin