After Remarkable Relocation, Historic Gay Head Lighthouse Shines Again
After 160 years of sea cliff erosion, the Gay Head Lighthouse in the town of Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard was literally a few dozen feet away from being lost forever to the Atlantic Ocean.
Two years of planning, paperwork, heavy labor, and $3.5 million later, island residents and visitors alike can sleep easily again under the sweep of the familiar Gay Head light. After an extensive relocation campaign this spring, the lighthouse reopened on August 11, a safe 130 feet farther inland where its red and white beacon is shining brightly once again.
A journey of 130 feet, however, required the help of an entire community. Here are just a few of the local preservationists who made this vision a reality.
Paula Eisenberg is, compared to most people who live on Martha’s Vineyard, a newcomer. She came to Aquinnah in 2002, and immediately was drawn to historical restoration and preservation projects as a way to get involved in the community.
Len Butler moved to the island 45 years ago after his college graduation. He and the woman who would become his wife stood on the cliffs and decided to start a family in Aquinnah. Years later, their daughter got married just steps from the lighthouse.
Martha Vanderhoop has lived in Aquinnah her entire life. Her grandfather, Charles Vanderhoop, Sr., was a principal lighthouse keeper from 1920-33, and the first of the local Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head to achieve that status. Martha’s father, Charles, Jr., grew up in the building before becoming a ship captain.
Paula, Len, and Martha are all members of the Save the Gay Head Lighthouse Committee, each bringing a unique perspective to this massive preservation project, and each forever entwined with the history of the lighthouse.
Paula was captivated by the rich sense of history in the town, which she says is “very much alive,” so she was more than happy to put her experience in media and Internet consulting to use through the lighthouse committee. Before the lighthouse was moved, she could see the iconic red and white beam from her bedroom window; she’s anxious to find out if that will still hold true from its new location.
Local building contractor Len Butler has been knee deep into the lighthouse project: he chaired the relocation sub-committee, managing the various builders, engineers, and movers that contributed to the move. He also had a big hand in the lighthouse transfer of ownership from the U.S. Coast Guard to the town of Aquinnah.
“It’s always been an important lighthouse -- it has been a beacon,” Len says. “We’re a maritime community, going back to whaling days. The Island really depends on this lighthouse and it’s a part of our heritage.”
Not only is the lighthouse an active aid to navigation (and will continue to be operated by the Coast Guard), it also contributes significantly to tourism and business for the town of Aquinnah. Local businesses felt the impact of the temporary closure, and everyone is anxious for the lighthouse to be fully operational and open to visitors again.
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While the details of the move itself are noteworthy and an incredible feat of engineering, as well as a great example of multiple municipal and federal agencies, organizations, and individuals working together for a common purpose, Len is most excited about the historical and cultural significance of the project.
“The spot where my daughter stood and got married 11 years ago is no longer there,” Len says. “That really brought it home for me. I’m happy we’ve preserved this for future generations.”
He and other members of the committee visited the community schools and invited students to watch the move and explained why it’s important: “We want them to feel a part of this, a part of this history, so they will have this love for the lighthouse that we grew up with, and pass it along to their children.”
Perhaps the most connected to the Gay Head Lighthouse is Martha, who grew up hearing stories from her father about a childhood as a light keeper’s son and how the whole family contributed to its operation and upkeep.
“In those times, it was a 24-hour, everyday kind of job,” she says. Tasks like turning the crank for the light, washing windows, and collecting water kept everyone busy. Martha remembers being disappointed when the keeper’s house was torn down, and did her part volunteering over the years to help manage the light, give tours, and preserve its legacy. She’s especially proud of her Wampanoag heritage and the tribal ties to the lighthouse.
“I felt like I was just continuing the tradition my father started, when he was working to save the lighthouse years ago, all the talks he gave about it,” she says. “I know that’s what he would have wanted.”
The lighthouse is open again, but the restoration work continues. The committee will host their annual 10k race in October to raise funds for projects such as cleaning and replacing windows, reinforcing steel support and brick walls, and maintaining the lens. But Paula, Len, Martha, and the town of Aquinnah can rest assured that the lighthouse will stand strong at least another 150 years.
“It’s a great sense of accomplishment,” Len says. “When that light’s sweeping through my window at night again, my job is done…well, not really. I’m kinda married to it now for the rest of my life.”
Paula isn’t sure what she’ll get involved with next, but now she’s made connections to last a lifetime. “You really can’t escape history walking around the town. You’re living in history. It’s a part of the present.”
Learn more about the history of the Gay Head Lighthouse and the relocation project here.
Photos by Maria Thibodeau, mariawritingwithlight.com