AQUINNAH, Mass. — A Martha's Vineyard lighthouse that is among the most endangered historic landmarks in the U.S. began its gradual march back from a rapidly eroding cliffside on Thursday.
Powerful hydraulic pistons inched the 160-year-old Gay Head Lighthouse about 5 feet at a time along steel rails lathered with soap, starting just before noon. By midafternoon, it had moved more than 25 feet.
The 52-foot-high, 400-ton brick-and-mortar structure is expected to arrive at its final destination — a concrete pad about 135 feet due southeast — as soon as Friday.
"We've got plenty of time. We're not in any rush," said Jerry Matyiko, a seasoned mover of large structures whose crews have relocated five lighthouses, including the famed Cape Hatteras Light in North Carolina. "Preparing it was the hard part. Moving it is the easy part."
Workers spent weeks painstakingly digging under the lighthouse to lift it a few short feet off the ground, using dozens of hydraulic jacks supported by a network of wood-and-steel beams.
Once in its new home, the lighthouse and the scoured-out land around it will be restored.
Located on the sparsely populated, western edge of the resort island, Gay Head Light has been a critical waypoint for mariners since the peak of the whaling trade in the 19th century.
Its red-and-white beam can be seen for almost 20 miles out, warning ships of the coastline and the treacherous shoal extending about a half-mile into the water.
Today, the beacon and its dramatic, brilliantly colored cliffside perch are also a must-see destination for tourists.
Buddy Vanderhoop, a longtime charter fishing captain whose great uncle was the lighthouse's first keeper, was among a handful of locals on hand Thursday to observe the start of the move.
"That light right here has been significant for me finding my way back home on more than a thousand occasions," he said. "You know exactly where you are when you see the red and the white. That's the homestretch."
Paula Eisenberg, who has lived down the road from the lighthouse since 2002, said the beacon has been a comforting and treasured part of her time on the island.
"At night, my husband and I can see the sweep of the lighthouse beam through our bedroom window," she said. "It's just a big part of our lives out here and we couldn't bear the thought of losing it."
A group of local schoolchildren that had helped raise money for the $3.4 million project also stopped by for a visit.
"It's pretty cool. I thought it would take a lot of time, maybe a couple of weeks," 9-year-old Yossi Monahan said of the move.
Relocating the lighthouse became an urgent matter after constant landslides caused by ocean waves and groundwater severely eroded the cliffs.
The lighthouse is now just 46 feet from the clay-and-sandstone cliff's edge. Within two years, advocates feared, it would have been too close to the edge to move safely.
"This was a proud symbol of our maritime heritage," said Len Butler, chairman of a town committee overseeing the relocation. "We couldn't let that happen."
The project is being paid for through donations and grants, though supporters say they're still about $200,000 short.
Richard Pomroy, the project manager, said they hope to have the town-owned lighthouse re-lit and open to the public by early July.
For now, a temporary beacon has been installed on a simple steel pole nearby to guide ships to safety.