Saving Sankaty Light

Erosion threatens the 70-foot-tall lighthouse

by: Joshua Balling

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

On Feb. 1, 1850, the beacon atop Sankaty Light blazed through the dark night for the first time, warning whalers and seafarers away from the treacherous waters off the island’s eastern shore. Over the years, it grew into far more than a simple aid to navigation, drawing visitors from across the island and around the world, and has become one of Nantucket’s most indelible icons.

Today, even with technology like Global Positioning Systems to guide boaters around the treacherous shoals that lie in wait off the island’s eastern shoreline, the lighthouse itself still serves as a welcome sight to mariners offshore after dark or in the fog.

But the 70-foot-tall, 550-ton lighthouse, the oldest original aid to navigation on Nantucket, is in trouble. Perched several hundred yards from the edge of the Sankaty bluff at the time it was commissioned, thanks to erosion, Sankaty now teeters a precarious 79 feet from toppling into the Atlantic nearly 100 feet below.

But if the Sconset Trust has anything to say about it, it won’t be in danger for long. The conservation organization was set in mid-October to take possession of the lighthouse from the U.S. Coast Guard, and has embarked on an ambitious $3 million plan to move the landmark 400 feet northwest to a safer, more stable location in the rough off the fifth hole of the Sankaty Head Golf Club.

International Chimney Corporation of Buffalo, N.Y., which has successfully relocated lighthouses like Block Island Light, Cape Cod Light, and Cape Hatteras Light in North Carolina, has been contracted to jack up the lighthouse and ever so slowly move it on rails across a 15-foot grade to its new home. If all goes according to plan, the actual move will occur the first or second week of October 2007.

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