Lighting the Coast and Heart: Gay Head (Aquinnah) Lighthouse

Posted on: June 20th, 2013 by Paulina Tam

Golden hour at Gay Head (Aquinnah) Lighthouse. Credit: adwriter, Flickr

Since its first christening in 1856, Gay Head (Aquinnah) Lighthouse in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts -- one of the sites on our 2013 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places -- has lighted the passage home for ships and travelers returning from sea in the Atlantic Coast. It was and still is a celebrated artifact of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head/Aquinnah, a Native American Tribe; the citizens of Aquinnah, Massachusetts; and the hearts of many outside visitors.

However, a much darker light has been casting its rays upon the historical lighthouse in recent years.

“The lighthouse now sits 50 feet from the edge of the world-famous Gay Head clay cliffs,” says Beverly Wright, a member of the Gay Head Lighthouse Advisory Committee, a committee whose mission consists of advocating and researching solutions to help preserve the lighthouse and a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head/Aquinnah. “It is estimated that it must be moved within the next two years because of erosion.”

Erosion and extreme weather has been carving and carrying away approximately two feet of soil and terrain every year from the lighthouse’s support base, reports The Martha’s Vineyard Times -- and with the erosion comes another obstacle.

“Initial geoanalysis will take place this fall with an anticipated move in the fall of 2014,” says Wright. “The biggest hurdle that faces the Committee is the estimated cost of $3 million for removal to the new site, building of a foundation, and ground preparation.”

Saving and moving the Gay Head (Aquinnah) Lighthouse to a new and more secure location is one of many aspects in the preservation operation. The lighthouse is currently managed by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and throughout its long history of silently and dutifully watching over the coastline, it has celebrated many firsts.

Gay Head (Aquinnah) Lighthouse as seen from afar, red lights flickering across the shore. Credit: Timothy Valentine, Flickr

Gay Head (Aquinnah) lighthouse was the first lighthouse constructed in the Vineyard and one of the first lighthouses in the United States to have received a first-order Fresnel lens, an elaborately and ornately designed lighthouse lens that enabled vintage aesthetic appeal and greater visibility range.

The lighthouse also mirrors an integral and nostalgic reminder of the “history, culture and tradition” of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head/Aquinnah, says Wright.

“Many generations have fallen asleep to the flashing light,” says Wright. “One of the Lighthouse Keepers was a member of the Tribe and his granddaughter is now serving on the Committee to save this iconic treasure.”

Outside visitors and residents also partake in a tradition of sitting by the lighthouse and “clap[ping] down the sun,” a tradition that Wright herself has participated in as a child.

“When the sun starts to dip in the water [horizon] they clap until the sun disappears below the horizon,” says Wright. “Children love the idea of clapping the sun down.”

The lighthouse has also served witness to ceremonial receptions such as Wright and her husband’s marriage with the past Chief of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head/Aquinnah present as the officiant.

Another view of the lighthouse. Credit: Paul Lowry, Flickr

Past and present memories are intertwined within the lighthouse’s walls, and even from Wright’s abode high above the tree tops she still sees the lighthouse streaming its red and white rays in 15 second intervals across Aquinnah, the distant Atlantic coastline, and beyond.

“It would be a hole in my heart to not be able to see this flashing beacon,” says Wright. “I hope people reading this article are able to visit our wonderful lighthouse and see for themselves what a treasure we are struggling to save for generations to come.”

Learn more or make a contribution to the Gay Head (Aquinnah) Lighthouse’s preservation at GayHeadLight.org.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Paulina Tam

Paulina Tam

Paulina Tam is an intern at Preservation magazine as well as the Features Co-Editor of The Observer at Fordham University. A WWII and aviation fanatic, she maintains a growing collection of WWII model airplanes that accompanies her hometown writing station.

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