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The Sankaty Head Lighthouse will begin its move to a new site (foreground) tomorrow because of the threat of an eroding bluff.
The Sankaty Head Lighthouse will begin its move to a new site (foreground) tomorrow because of the threat of an eroding bluff. (Mark Wilson/ Globe Staff)

Traveling light on Nantucket

Threatened by erosion, Sankaty Head Lighthouse to get new home

NANTUCKET - It weighs some 500 tons, the equivalent of a stack of 100 elephants and, starting tomorrow, with the support of 2,500 pieces of oak cribbing, the lift of 16 hydraulic jacks, and a bit of luck, Sankaty Head Lighthouse will begin moving toward sanctuary.

Erosion of the steep bluff where the lighthouse has stood for 157 years threatens to send the structure tumbling into the sea. The structure was originally built 280 feet from the bluff's edge, but violent storms have eaten the ground away, and now just 75 feet remain, barely enough to support the brick and granite tower.

Tomorrow, it is to be put on rollers and inched 405 feet to a spot near the fifth hole of Sankaty Head Golf Course, where its caretakers hope it will remain safe for another 100 years.

The relocation of Nantucket's lone original lighthouse - two others were destroyed in storms and fires and rebuilt - is drawing curiosity from far away. A crew from Britain is filming the event for a documentary. Local officials are planning for hundreds of visitors and have cordoned off two viewing areas in Siasconset, the village on Nantucket's southeastern side where the lighthouse stands, for the move that could take as little as three days or as long as two weeks, depending on variables like weather and equipment performance.

Last week, a steady stream of onlookers made its way down a dusty pathway to the site where the unlit lighthouse, swathed in cable and girded by beams and jacks, looked like a patient being readied for surgery.

"I've seen that lighthouse through my bedroom window every night," said John Pearl, a lifelong resident of Nantucket and owner of Claudette's Clambakes, who biked the short trip to the lighthouse Friday. "Its rhythm has been putting me to sleep all my days."

Erosion is profoundly altering the southern and eastern coasts of Nantucket and threatening some of the island's most revered and pricey structures.

Efforts to save some of them have stirred controversy. When beachfront homeowners in Siasconset this year announced plans to spend $25 million of their own money to dredge 2.6 million cubic yards of sand from a few miles offshore and pump it onto a 3.1-mile stretch of beach, some questioned the expense of a temporary fix and others worried about the potential effect on fish habitats.

The relocation of the lighthouse, which is estimated to cost $4 million, has been questioned as well. Some said the money could be better spent on other causes. Several neighbors contended that they would no longer have a view of the lighthouse. But most opponents were eventually assuaged, organizers say.

"Even people who were disappointed realized that no one would be able to see the lighthouse if it was not here," said Susan Ruddick of Nantucket and West Palm Beach, an early proponent of the move. "In the end, it seemed a small price to pay."

Lighthouses have been moved many times in the past, often to protect them from encroaching erosion. The company overseeing the Sankaty Lighthouse move, International Chimney Corp., a company based in Buffalo, previously handled the moves of two lighthouses on the Cape - the Highland and the Nauset - as well as Block Island's Southeast Light and Cape Hatteras Light Station in North Carolina.

The idea of moving Sankaty Lighthouse gained momentum in the 1990s after a storm sheared more than 17 feet off the bluff in one weekend. Fund-raising began, and negotiations with the Coast Guard, which owned the lighthouse, ensued.

Last week, ownership of the lighthouse and surrounding land was transferred to the 'Sconset Trust, a not-for-profit organization established in 1984 by a group of Siasconset residents to conserve land and preserve historic structures. The Coast Guard retains the right to operate the light, said Steven Cohen, the trust's attorney.

Had the bluff eroded any further, specialists overseeing the move say, there would not have been enough stable ground to operate heavy equipment, and the lighthouse would have had to stay where it is, awaiting the inevitable tumble into the sea.

When the lighthouse is relocated, it will be 7 feet lower and will sit on land that belongs to the golf club, which has provided an easement to the 'Sconset Trust.

Its old spot will be remembered with historical markers that tell the lighthouse's story from its first day of work on Feb. 1, 1850, when fishermen dubbed it the "Blazing Star."

Michael Landen, foreman of the project, who helped oversee the move of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse in his home state, said the task of shifting the behemoths is rewarding.

"There is a real sense of accomplishment knowing that you have saved something for other generations to enjoy," he said.

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