The Extraordinary Saga of Gay Head Light

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Moving an iconic 160-year-old, 400-ton national treasure from an eroding coastal bluff takes collaboration, and perseverance. Located at the western tip of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, Gay Head Light was built in 1856 when the channel below the bluff was said to be the busiest shipping lane in the country. The lighthouse, a red brick, 51-foot tower with a black lantern constructed of brick and sandstone, sits on a rapidly-eroding one-acre parcel overlooking clay cliffs and a treacherous sea passage known as Devil’s Bridge.

On August 1, 2013, the U.S. Coast Guard declared the Gay Head Light as excess property. Shortly thereafter, the General Services Administration (GSA) issued a  Notice of Availability declaring that the lighthouse was available at no cost to eligible entities pursuant to the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act.

In March 2014, the town of Aquinnah submitted an application offering to take ownership and move the lighthouse from the eroding cliff. The town was awarded the lighthouse that September.  Compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act had to be fulfilled before the lighthouse could be conveyed to the town. GSA, led by Assistant Regional Counsel Carol Chirico, took the lead role in this process and worked to expedite compliance by holding bi-weekly meetings to negotiate a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) to identify impacts to historic resources, and establish mitigation measures. The five-month long effort resulted in an MOA executed by seven parties, including the GSA, the National Park Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Massachusetts Historic Commission, the town of Aquinnah and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head.

On the same day the Section 106 MOA was executed, GSA transferred title of Gay Head Light to the town of Aquinnah. In the 18-month period from the date GSA issued the Notice of Availability to the transfer of title, the Save the Gay Head Lighthouse Committee raised several million dollars to fund the move and restore the lighthouse.

Beginning in April 2015, the lighthouse was raised six feet off the ground and pushed down soap-lathered steel rails by two hydraulic pistons. The new location, 135 feet inland, is projected to be far enough inland to protect the lighthouse from future erosion for at least the next 100 years.

The impossible became possible. Gay Head Light is expected to reopen to the public sometime in July for future generations to enjoy.