Lighthouse Keepers

Thu, 11/15/2018 - 7:45pm

On Nov. 15 at 9 p.m. WGBH premiered — see more showing dates and times below — a documentary titled “Keepers of the Light.” It deals with the moving of the Gay Head Lighthouse on the western tip of Martha’s Vineyard. Moreover, the film shows a couple of similarities that were involved with the moving of this historic structure, and the Southeast Lighthouse on Block Island, Rhode Island in 1993. For example, it was done by the same company — Expert House Movers. Also, for both cases there were complex hoops to jump through in order to save these iconic structures, which for centuries served ships at sea. In the case of the Gay Head Lighthouse, the government would simply erect a steel tower with a light — aesthetics was not a concern — to replace this important aid to navigation. Without a plan this powerful and individuated structure would tumble down the clay cliffs, and that would be that — as they say.

The only way these lighthouses were going to be saved was if a cadre of individuals — a grassroots organization — would take the initiative. Furthermore, in both cases that is exactly what happened. In the film “Keepers of the Light,” directed by Martha’s Vineyard resident Liz Witham and co-produced by she and her husband Ken Wentworth, we see such a determined group of passionate folks who did not want to see a steel tower with a light on it — they wanted their lighthouse. Early in the film it is established what hurdles were jumped over in order to do the job. In a lighthouse committee meeting we see the task finally take shape. In this meeting committee member Elise LeBovit says, “We have distance, orientation, elevation, cliff edge and cost.” Once these important elements were established, it was game on! All that was needed now was the $3.5 million to procure the landb — along with some adjoining buildings — from the government, and be able to meet construction costs.

The Town of Aquinnah has a year-round population of three hundred residents. It sits on the ancestral land of the Aquinnah, Wampanoag tribe; it is sacred ground for these people and the lighthouse has been a central element to the tribe’s culture — for generations. The film demonstrates this in examples of folklore, industry and community ritual. For these grounded and very passionate people, a steel tower with a light simply would not be acceptable. Now was the time to raise the money, and for openers, a 10K race was sponsored by the lighthouse committee. Organizers were reaching out to all of the other townships on the island, and all answered the call. (A similar thing happened on Block Island, spearheaded by Dr. Gerry Abbott et al.) The committee was expecting about 100 runners; however, 220 registered participants showed up and, from this humble beginning, began the race against time to move the lighthouse. Moreover, the Southeast Lighthouse move had a similar race against time. Both islands were rapidly losing their south-facing bluffs.

The importance of lighthouses as aids to navigation was, and is now, no trivial matter in our coastal region; all we need to do is look at the charted shipwrecks off our coast. In the 1800s, if a ship was transiting Vineyard, Block Island, Nantucket sounds, or Buzzard’s and Narragansett Bays, there was thin water that needed accurate charting and flashing lighthouses to help triangulate shoal water. Fog was the enemy, and vigilance was of extreme importance. (Even today with all of our electronic capability ships can still get into hazardous situations and groundings can occur.) The Lighthouse Service was a serious government agency and the lighthouse keepers took their jobs seriously. For example, the Fresnel lens had to be very carefully cleaned with cheesecloth for the beacon to maintain its brightness.

The glue of the narrative for this well-structured and historically driven documentary lies in the old photographs and film footage obtained by  directors Liz Witham, and her husband Ken Wentworth. Witham grew up just below the Gay Head Lighthouse on a bluff overlooking an old ferry landing. A ferry from New Bedford served the Aquinnah tribe, and the pilings from the dock are still visible from where Witham came of age. The film gives a special and respectful nod to Charles W. Vanderhoop, who was the tenth Principal Lighthouse Keeper and the only Aquinnah Wampanoag to serve in this position. This very personable man took his job seriously and acted as a legendary steward of this iconic lighthouse. Additionally, there is a wrenching part of this documentary which deals with the grounding and subsequent sinking of the City of Columbus. Herein lies a story of heroism of several men from the town of Aquinnah, and the tragic loss of life from the foundering ship. The film takes a raw look — with compelling photographs — at this tragedy. Finally, it further demonstrates how necessary this guide to navigation the lighthouse was, and remains today.  

Upon returning from a recent trip to Martha’s Vineyard, I was happy to see the picture of Rob Gilpin on the front page of The Block Island Times for receiving the Antoinette Downing Volunteer Service Award. I had just watched a screener of the “Keepers of the Light” documentary and here I was reading about a guy who truly is the keeper of the North Light. Rob Gilpin exemplifies the people of Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard and other coastal communities that are working to continue their heritage and traditions by saving historic lighthouses — and maintaining them. We should tip our hats to all of the players of these communities who work tirelessly to keep these lighthouses shining on.

The documentary on Friday, Nov. 16 at 12 p.m (WGBX).; Saturday, Nov. 17 at 1 p.m..(WGBH); Sunday, Nov. 18 at 1 p.m. (WGBH) and 9 p.m. (WGBX)and Wednesday, Nov. 21 at 1 a.m. (WGBH).