“Lighthouses stand as a physical reminder of our connection to the ocean and the sea living within us.”
The northeast wind was howling as we leaned into its push. We stood exposed on shifting sands of the barrier beach surrounding the Edgartown Harbor Lighthouse. The three of us composed an eclectic research team: a world-renowned coastal scientist from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute; a geology student working on his master’s thesis; and myself, project director and founder of Vineyard Environmental Research Institute, (VERI.).
For over a year, we had been studying erosion along the Martha’s Vineyard coastline. The work was labor intensive: setting up scientific equipment. hammering in baseline stakes, taking transit measurements of shifting dunes and beaches, using nontoxic dye to study coastal currents, and handwriting data in the field.
Each day, we would lug our heavy equipment out to the beach, take measurements for several hours, and then carry our burden over the dunes back to our waiting vehicles. After one cold winter day, as I sat in my pickup truck with my hands in front of the heater vent, I had an epiphany: “Ask the United States Coast Guard (USCG) for permission to store our equipment in the lighthouses.” A good idea, I thought, since our study would provide the Coast Guard with information about the erosion threatening the five lighthouses on Martha’s Vineyard.
Lighthouses to be Destroyed
My meeting with Captain Fred Hamilton of the USCG Group Woods Hole went well. He agreed to provide me with an ATON (Aids To Navigation) key to access the lighthouses. However, just as our meeting was closing, he said, “I guess you are aware that three of the island’s five lighthouses are scheduled for destruction.”
“What! Which ones?” I asked.
“Gay Head, Edgartown, and East Chop lights,” answered the Captain.
“Why are you tearing them down?” I asked.
Captain Hamilton explained that certain lighthouses around the country were slated for destruction because the structures were too expensive to maintain. With new radar and navigation technologies, many lighthouses were becoming obsolete. In places where it was determined that a visual aid-to-navigation was still needed, the Coast Guard was replacing old lighthouses with open metal structures topped off with strobe lights that were inexpensive to maintain.
The first lighthouse I chose to visit on a stormy winter’s day was the historic Gay Head Light overlooking the clay cliffs in the town of Aquinnah. At the time of its construction in 1856, this brick lighthouse replaced an earlier wooden lighthouse, and was considered the ninth most important lighthouse in the United States. This importance was due to the large number of sailing vessels (about 20,000 a year) navigating the nearby waters that held a submerged line of rocks known as “Devil’s Bridge” – a name given due to the large number of shipwrecks that sent countless people to their watery graves.
As I approached the lighthouse, the snow-dusted grounds were overgrown with shrubs and I could see that the bottom of the lighthouse metal door was rotted through with rust. After undoing the lock, I struggled with the door because it was wedged inside its frame. A couple of good shoulder rams forced the door open with the creepy creaking of metal on metal. As I stepped inside, my eyes took a moment to adjust to the dim light. On the floor I could see broken glass and crushed beer cans and the air was filled with the rank odor of beer and urine – trespassers had gained access by smashing the first floor window.
As I walked up the rusty stairs, I could hear the eerie grinding mechanical noise of the rotating beacon on top of the lighthouse; with each ascending step, I saw damp interior bricks covered with layers of a strange grayish mold that had long fuzzy white hair-like growths sticking out several inches. I had a feeling that the place was haunted by an angry ghost.
Upon reaching the lantern room, I saw a two-tiered noisily rotating light that projected a signal of three white flashes and one red. Drops of water dripped from a hole in the roof onto the hot metal casing of the light, each drop evaporated into a wavy stream of steam. This was the light signal that replaced the whale oil illuminated French-made Fresnel lens in 1952, the year that the lighthouse was electrified and the same year the Gay Head Light lighthouse keeper was relieved of his duties and the lighthouse was closed to public access.
As the wind howled around the lighting room, the large plate glass, some with cracks, rattled with the wind’s rhythm. From the vantage of the lighting room, I looked down at the thrilling scene of churning waves chewing at the base of the clay cliffs. It was fascinating to see the nearby ocean take on a foreboding red-blood color from the tint of the cliffs’ eroding red clay.
After watching the rolling red-colored waves splash and crash over nearby rocks, my gaze lifted to the horizon of the wind-swept sea. As though in a dream, I imagined standing in the shoes of all the Gay Head Lighthouse keepers through time. For a brief moment, I felt the life-and-death burden of keeping the light burning brightly at night, a bright light to warn ships away from the deadly embrace of “Devil’s Bridge.”
Inspiration to Save The Lighthouses
After my experience at the Gay Head Light, I visited the island’s other four lighthouses. As I was to discover, all the lighthouses on Martha’s Vineyard were in various stages of disrepair and decay, except for the well-maintained West Chop Light.
East Chop Light had a vandalized first floor window and floors littered with pieces of glass from beer and wine bottles. There were cracked windows in the lantern room, rusty steps and flooring, blistering paint inside and out, the smell of urine and stale alcohol, and graffiti spray-painted on the interior brick walls. The Edgartown Lighthouse looked like an oversized rust bucket decorated with graffiti. The wooden Cape Pogue Light, which was perched precariously close to the edge of the sandy cliffs, had cracked siding, peeling paint, and cracked windows.
For several months our research team stored scientific gear inside the lighthouses. As our project came to a close, my affection and appreciation for the history and aesthetic grandeur of the lighthouses touched me deeply. As I locked the door of the Gay Head Light for the last time, I decided to take on the task of trying to save the three island lighthouses from destruction.
When I returned the key to Captain Hamilton, I asked, “What can I do to help save the lighthouses?” The Captain answered, “That is something out of my hands and jurisdiction. It would probably take an act of Congress to stop the razing of the three lights. If anything, I recommend you begin by contacting the U.S. Coast Guard’s property division located in Boston.”
Sailing back to the Vineyard from Woods Hole, I sat at an east-facing window on the Islander ferry. As the ferry sailed past Woods Hole’s Nobska Light and the nearby keeper’s house where Captain Hamilton lived, the thought crossed my mind that the Vineyard’s lighthouses needed a modern-day lighthouse keeper. Not a lighthouse keeper in the historic sense, but a keeper who would save and preserve the lighthouses that saved so many ships and lives over the years, the lighthouses that now stood abandoned as they slowly rotted and faded from memory.
The Battle to Save the Lighthouses
My first contact at the USCG properties division was with Laurie Boudreau, FLP Commander of the 1st Coast Guard District in Boston. Like Captain Hamilton, Ms. Boudreau indicated that I would have to work with the United States Congress to save the three lights from being demolished. She also said, “The only way I believe you can save the lighthouses is if your organization and the local community are willing to assume the care and expense of maintaining the lighthouses.”
I immediately initiated contact with Massachusetts Congressman Gerry Studds and Senator Ted Kennedy. As fate would have it, Congressman Gerry Studds was recently appointed chair of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, and was working closely, at that time, with the Lighthouse Preservation Society to save lighthouses. The timing was perfect for my proposal to arrive in Washington for saving the island’s lighthouses. Congressman Gerry Studds gave his support, as did Senator Ted Kennedy.
For the next two years, the money to save the lighthouses came out of my own pocket. In 1986, as VERI’s President, I affixed my signature to a 35-year lease with the United States of America for the three lighthouses. Under the lease, VERI assumed responsibility for maintaining the grounds and structures of the lighthouses, while the U.S. Coast Guard continued maintaining the aids-to-navigation.
As I was told, this was the first lease in U.S. history where “active” aids-to-navigation were transferred to a civilian organization. This was also the first time in the history of Martha’s Vineyard that the lighthouses were under local control.
On August 27, 1986, VERI held its first lighthouse benefit at the Hot Tin Roof nightclub. Participants at this fundraiser included Senator Ted Kennedy; Congressman Gerry Studds (by special arrangement); Caroline Kennedy; Teddy Kennedy, Jr.; U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Richard Bauman; singer/songwriters Carly Simon and Kate Taylor; Hugh Taylor; poet Rose Styron; Dennis Miller of Saturday Night Live; comedian Steven Sweeney, and many others. The event was a huge success.
Over the years, I also produced lighthouse fundraising events at the historic Harbor View Hotel that overlooks the Edgartown Harbor Light. These fundraisers featured the famed historian and Martha’s Vineyard resident, David McCullough, as a keynote speaker, and the world-renowned LIFE Magazine photographer and island summer resident, Alfred Eisenstaedt. Today, the Harbor View Hotel does an annual holiday celebration of the illumination of the Edgartown Light adorned in an oversized green wreath embellished by a huge red bow. When the lights are turned on, Christmas carolers surrounding the lighthouse sing a series of seasonal songs.
On a similar note, the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce sponsors the annual Lighthouse Challenge. At this event, people have the opportunity to visit the island’s five lighthouses along with receiving a lighthouse history tour at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
Public Access to Lighthouses
Through years of hard work and with the help of dedicated volunteers, VERI safely reopened the Gay Head Lighthouse and its newly created lighthouse park to the public on Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 8, 1988. This was the first time a Vineyard lighthouse was open to the public since their closure in the 1950s. VERI also repainted and restored the East Chop and Edgartown Harbor lighthouses. In 1990 I made the executive decision to open the East Chop Light to the public. I even gave a key to elderly Oak Bluffs resident, Della Hardman, who wrote her Ph.D. thesis while occupying the East Chop Light.
On a personal note, I have met and befriended many old island folks who fondly recall visiting the lighthouses as children - back in the days when there were keepers. Since 1988 I have also appointed many people to various lighthouse keeper positions at the three lighthouses. One of my dearest lighthouse friends was Charles W. Vanderhoop, a Native American Wampanoag, who was born at the Gay Head Lighthouse when his father was a keeper. Charlie became a huge celebrity with school children visiting the Gay Head Lighthouse. The most reliable Gay Head keepers I appointed was the husband and wife team of Richard Skidmore and Joan LeLacheur. Joan was there the day President Obama and his family stopped by for a tour.
After ten years of restoring and serving as the modern-day “head lighthouse keeper” for the three lighthouses from 1985 to 1994, I decided to transfer the three lighthouses to the Dukes County Historical Society (DCHS), known today as the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. My life was changing as I began writing books about water and traveling the globe. At the time, I was also a board member at DCHS. After transferring the lighthouses, I served as chair of the DCHS lighthouse committee for four years, and as a lighthouse committee member for an additional three years, bringing a total of seventeen years of my life dedicated to saving and restoring the lighthouses of Martha’s Vineyard.
Today, when I visit art galleries and see paintings of the three lighthouses, listen to local lighthouse poems, see people standing at the top of the lighthouses, talk with parents whose school children are doing lighthouse projects, visit the “Children’s Memorial” at the Edgartown Lighthouse, attend lighthouse weddings and other community festivities centered around the lighthouses, I feel proud of my contribution to preserving the lighthouse culture of Martha’s Vineyard.
The fact that three of five lighthouses on Martha’s Vineyard were almost destroyed twenty-five years ago is now a distant memory. Today, very few people remember the time when three of the island lights of Martha’s Vineyard were almost lost to history — forever.
Editor’s Note: To embrace a more international perspective, the name of VERI has since been changed to World Waterway. Recently, World Waterway launched National Geographic’s book, Written in Water: Messages of Hope for Earth’s Most Precious Resource. Besides saving lighthouses, William Waterway Marks is an award-winning water researcher, author, poet, and Native American flutist. William’s water research has been featured by CNN; MSNBC; MVTV; CBS; NBC; ABC; NPR; UPI; New Zealand National Radio; AP; New York Times; Water Encyclopedia; Alternet; Care2.com; MaximsNews; National Geographic and other media. (firstname.lastname@example.org www.watervoices.com)
This story appeared in the
December 2010 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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