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Town Scrambles To Save Historic Gay Head Light

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The Gay Head Lighthouse, located on the multicolored Aquinnah cliffs of Martha’s Vineyard is at risk of falling into the sea. Prominently placed on the island’s western end, the original stone and wood structure was the first signal house to be built on Martha’s Vineyard in November of 1799.By the mid-1800s increases in whaling traffic and need for a stronger signal light lead to the current iteration – a 170-foot tall brick structure commissioned in 1856.

According to the Save the Gay Head Lighthouse Committee’s website, an extensive survey of the bluffs was conducted in August of 2012 to determine the rate of erosion experienced by the Gay Head Cliffs.

Sourati Engineering Group (SEG) placed 167 survey reference points between the light and the bluff edge. The 2012 bluff-edge survey was then compared to an 1870 town map of the bluff by matching and overlaying permanent monument (trails, clearings, and the building itself) in order to determine the geological changes the bluff has endured. With these aids, SEG was able to determine the location of the bluff’s edge in 1870 to an accuracy of +/- 10 feet. More importantly, SEG has determined that the Gay Head Bluffs have eroded at an average rate of 1.8 feet-per-year, for the last 142 year period, leaving the lighthouse a mere 47 feet from the nearest edge.

There is hope however.

In August of 2013 the General Services Administration (GSA), which manages federal land holdings, listed the Gay Head Lighthouse as surplus property - opening the door for the town of Aquinnah to apply to take ownership of the property.

The news comes as an island-wide effort to raise $3 million the town hopes will cover the restoration of the lighthouse at a new location picks up steam. A committee called Save the Gay Head Lighthouse has put up a website calling for donations and money from the town’s preservation fund has been donated to the Gay Head cause. The committee has also scheduled a 10k road race, taking place October 6 of this year, in order to raise both funds and awareness about the lighthouse’s dire situation.

Committee chairman, Len Butler, told the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette in early August that geologists and town officials aim to select a new location during the winter of 2013, with hopes of moving the lighthouse by next fall.

The Gay Head Bluff is ever reminding of its ticking clock.

“There was a big slide recently on the western face of the cliff,” Butler told the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. “That was a warning bell.”

The slide, reports the Gazette, sent a sizable clay boulder crashing from the cliffs edge into the sea. For information on the lighthouse project, how to donate, and to sign up for the 10k, visit the committee’s website at