Gay Head cliffs and lighthouse

At annual town meetings across the Island, Community Preservation Committees will be asking voters to follow their recommendations and support Aquinnah’s application for Community Preservation Act historic preservation funds to save the Gay Head Lighthouse.

The current Gay Head Lighthouse has been standing sentinel on the clay cliffs of Aquinnah since 1856. It is now in danger and it desperately needs the entire Island community to help save it. If we don’t, the stately brick structure, which remains an active aid to navigation, an icon of Martha’s Vineyard and an important living piece of our nautical heritage and history, will soon be replaced by the United States Coast Guard with a metal tower and LED light. To imagine Martha’s Vineyard without this icon is unthinkable on so many levels and we simply cannot let that happen.

When last measured, the lighthouse sat a mere 46 feet from the edge of the cliffs and engineers require at least 30 feet, preferably 40 feet, in order to get equipment in to move it. The erosion has been monitored for the last 23 years but lately the pace has picked up, perhaps due to more frequent heavy rains. Last year 4.5 feet were lost in one section, luckily not a section closest to the lighthouse but the indications are clear — move it or the Coast Guard will disassemble it before it tumbles into the sea.

The town of Aquinnah has submitted an application for ownership to the National Park Service and, as the only qualified applicant, we hope to have the property transferred by next fall. Other applications, such as Edgartown’s, have taken far longer but federal officials understand the urgency of this situation. Aquinnah’s Save the Light Committee has been pursuing its charge with due diligence in executing rigorous geo-technical studies to determine stable potential new sites and the feasibility of moving the lighthouse to those sites. A final decision, based on established criteria, will be made before summer.

The town of Aquinnah has proven itself capable of successful historic preservation in the recent past with the acquisition and restoration of the Vanderhoop Homestead on the Aquinnah Circle, now home to the Aquinnah Cultural Center. The people of Aquinnah are equally determined to do their utmost for the lighthouse. We must save this iconic historic landmark that means so much to both residents and visitors to Martha’s Vineyard, but we can not do it alone. It takes more than a village to move a 400-ton Victorian beauty.

In addition to guiding commerce and industry through Vineyard Sound, the lighthouse has been a tourist destination since it was built to house the phenomenal first order Fresnel lens. That marvel of the time arrived by boat from France via New York. It was delivered, as were visitors of the day, by oxen cart to its home in the brick tower atop the cliffs. To this day, each summer 45,000 people travel across the Island from the outwash plain through the rolling hills to Aquinnah, where all roads converge. The Gay Head Light is the focal point of the colorful Gay Head clay cliffs, an array of different colored clay deposits exposed from the massive Wisconsin ice shelf that carved its way down from the Connecticut river valley 10,000 years ago.

Many of us have grown up and lived under the sweep of the light. When I was a child, it was our meeting place and a favorite game was jumping the beams. It is a place woven deeply into the texture of our lives but the Gay Head Lighthouse is an iconic and cherished structure to all the people of Martha’s Vineyard, many of whom having gathered there for weddings, memorials and celebrations of all kinds. Please vote to save the light and give as generously as you can individually. The people of Aquinnah will support you when the time comes to preserve an Island resource in your town.

By Beverly Wright

Beverly Wright is the chair of Aquinnah board of selectmen and of the Save the Gay Head Light committee.