Operation Lighthouse Rescue

Join engineers as they race to rescue a historic lighthouse from certain doom. Airing May 4, 2016 at 9 pm on PBS Aired May 4, 2016 on PBS

Program Description

On the picturesque bluffs at the very tip of the island of Martha’s Vineyard, disaster looms. The historic Gay Head Lighthouse is soon to become the next victim of the persistent erosion of the island’s cliffs. Built in 1856, the more than 400-ton structure soars 175 feet above the sea. But over the years, storms and the raging ocean have eroded the headland away. With fierce storms and hurricanes only intensifying as the global climate warms, this historic landmark is precipitously close to toppling into the ocean. Now, an epic rescue is underway as a team of engineers attempts to move the iconic red brick structure 134 feet inland to safety. As they race to save this national treasure, discover the geology they encounter, the archeology they discover, and technology they employ in this Lighthouse Rescue.



Operation Lighthouse Rescue

PBS Airdate: May 4, 2016

NARRATOR: The Gay Head Light, on Martha's Vineyard, for a hundred and sixty years, it's warned sailors away from deadly rocks…

BUDDY VANDERHOOP (Charter Fisherman): It's not the rocks that you can see, it's the ones that you can't see that's going to kill you.

NARRATOR: …a guiding light, in fair weather and foul. But now, its very existence hangs in the balance.

RICHARD SKIDMORE (Gay Head Lighthouse Keeper): Here's the lighthouse, on the edge. This is something we've got to deal with.

NARRATOR: Teetering on an eroding cliff, it's in danger of sliding into the sea.

IZELLA BUSH (Expert House Movers): Open the valve!

NARRATOR: Now, a team of elite engineers wages an epic battle to save it…

IZELLA BUSH: If it falls down, we're out of business.

NARRATOR: …risking deadly storms and brittle brickwork, to move the lighthouse inland, before it's too late.

JERRY MATYIKO (Expert House Movers): When you're dealing with these old buildings, there's always surprises…

Here it comes!

…you just have to be ready for it.

NARRATOR: Can they protect this famous landmark for generations to come?

LEN BUTLER (Lighthouse Relocation Committee): Mother Nature has set a clock, and it's been ticking louder and louder and louder.

NARRATOR: Operation Lighthouse Rescue, right now, on NOVA.

Martha's Vineyard: an island seven miles off the coast of Cape Cod. Each summer, hundreds of thousands flock here: tourists, celebrities, even presidents. They're drawn by the island's rugged beauty, New England charm and rich maritime history.

In the town of Aquinnah, at the remote western tip of the island, is a beautiful promontory, known as Gay Head. Here, there is a very special landmark that has captured the hearts of generations of islanders and tourists alike, the Gay Head Lighthouse. It's been here for 160 years, keeping fishermen out of danger.

FISHERMAN: My dad used the Gay Head Light before me, and my grandfather before him.

NARRATOR: But now this iconic lighthouse is in trouble herself. She's about to fall off the crumbling cliff.

It's not always sunny and calm along this coastline. Ocean storms can send punishing waves and rain pounding against these cliffs, causing constant erosion and putting this landmark in jeopardy.

Built in 1856, this working lighthouse watches over what was once America's busiest shipping lane. In the 19th century, tens of thousands of ships passed between Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard every year.

The Gay Head Light had the country's first Native American keeper, Charles W. Vanderhoop, Senior. He was a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, which has called Martha's Vineyard home for over 10,000 years.

His relatives still live here, including charter fisherman, Buddy Vanderhoop. He sails these waters every day.

BUDDY VANDERHOOP: Wiley, can you smell any fish?

Another beautiful day in paradise.

NARRATOR: If Buddy's G.P.S. goes down, he relies on the Gay Head Light.

There are over 600 lighthouses in America. Each lighthouse has its own signature markings, light colors and rotation speed, helping seafarers to distinguish one lighthouse from another. These characteristics are marked on nautical charts. The Gay Head beacon gives one white and one red flash, alternating across a 15-second interval. It has an elevation of 175 feet above sea level and can project its light for 20 miles.

This information allows mariners to locate their position in relation to rocks, shallows and other dangers identified on the chart.

BUDDY VANDERHOOP: If you're not careful, you're going to sink your boat.

NARRATOR: The Gay Head Light warns of this lethal shoal, called Moshup's Bridge by the Aquinnah Wampanoag, also known as Devil's Bridge, hundreds of huge boulders, left behind as the cliff eroded.

BUDDY VANDERHOOP: There's one of the big rocks here. This is called Cook's Rock. But there's another rock, right here, which is called the Camel Back, that has eaten many a boat. It's not the rocks that you can see, it's that ones that you can't see that's going to kill you.

NARRATOR: On a cold January night, in 1884, despite the warning provided by the lighthouse, the passenger vessel S.S. City of Columbus steered too close to the rocks of Moshup's Bridge. She ran aground and sank quickly in rough seas, before anyone could sound the whistle.

Two lifeboat crews of Aquinnah Wampanoag were part of the rescue mission. But only 29 of the 132 aboard were saved.

Without this lighthouse, accidents like this could be far more common.

BUDDY VANDERHOOP: This is why the Gay Head light is here, to keep people away from this part of the "hydraulic landscape," I guess you would call it. She's a grand old gal, and I love the Gay Head Light.

NARRATOR: Today, the lighthouse keeper is Richard Skidmore. He was the first to realize how close this community was to losing this precious landmark.

RICHARD SKIDMORE: One day, I was walking onto the property, and I saw 40 running-feet of fence missing. Of course, I looked over, and there it was. About two feet had eroded, right at that cliff edge. That was shocking. And it really spoke to me. Here's the lighthouse, on the edge. This is something we've got to deal with, right about now.

NARRATOR: The lighthouse stands just 46 feet from the edge of the eroding bluff. A collapse could be just a few bad storms away, totally destroying this historic structure.

It wouldn't be the first building to be consumed by the sea here. On the neighboring island of Nantucket, erosion like this has recently claimed six homes that have collapsed off the crumbling cliffs.

New England is regularly battered by fierce nor'easters, tropical storms and sometimes, even hurricanes.

To rescue the light, the islanders have come up with a daring plan. They'll attempt to move it inland.

LEN BUTLER: Mother Nature has set a clock, and it's been ticking louder and louder and louder. And we've heard its call, and we've rallied to save this light before it's too late.

Once the structure is moved, they will build up a masonry foundation.

NARRATOR: Building Contractor Len Butler has lived in the town of Aquinnah, on Martha's Vineyard, for 45 years. He's part of a community that has worked tirelessly to raise more than $3,000,000 needed to move the Gay Head Light.

LEN BUTLER: Hi, Stephanie.

Another member has arrived. We share an extreme passion. This is an important work that we're doing, 'cause if we don't do it, no one else will.

NARRATOR: Now that they've raised the money, the big question is, how exactly do you move a tall, fragile, 160-year-old brick tower, without destroying it in the process?

It's a unique and daunting challenge, but one that this man, Jerry Matyiko, has faced many times.

LEN BUTLER: You brought the plumb bob out?

JERRY MATYIKO: Yeah, I got a plumb bob out.

LEN BUTLER: Jerry is quite an impressive guy. He's a no-bones-about-it, let's-get-down-to-business kind of guy.

JERRY MATYIKO: Are you going to stand in the way of my laser?

LEN BUTLER: When he's in full swing, just stay out of his way.

NARRATOR: Balancing precision and brute force, instinctively knowing when to use the scalpel and when to use the sledgehammer, Jerry has made a name for himself at transporting large structures.

During his 50-year career, he's moved more than a thousand buildings, muscling mansions, carrying churches, even relocating ancient relics.

JERRY MATYIKO: We've moved more buildings over a thousand tons than anyone in the world. Just like getting a operation, you know, you don't want a doctor the first time he ever operated on you, you want somebody that's did it quite a few times! Same way with the lighthouse.

GABE MATYIKO (Expert House Movers): If you want to spend quality time with my dad, you'd better be on a house-moving job site somewhere, because that's where he's at most of the time. At the age of 68, he's still lives and dies for this stuff.

NARRATOR: Every move presents a new puzzle. Jerry works with engineers to devise custom relocation plans for each job.

One option for moving the Gay Head Light would be to number every single one of the hundred thousand bricks in the structure, creating a 3D map of the building.

He could then dismantle and move it, brick-by-brick, rebuilding the lighthouse a safe distance inland.

This requires very little machinery but takes a lot of time.

JERRY MATYIKO: If you took the whole building apart, yes, you'd be here for a couple of years, if nothing else, just cleaning the bricks.

NARRATOR: A speedier option would be to cut holes in the lighthouse walls, thread steel support beams through the structure, then use a crane to lift the lighthouse, in sections, over to a new location, further inland. They could then take out the beams and patch up the holes.

This method is fast, but cutting up an historic brick structure could cause irreparable damage.

JERRY MATYIKO: Well, if you cut it in sections, when you put it back together, you either won't match the bricks or the mortar will not match. You'd just make a bunch of people mad.

NARRATOR: So, Jerry needs an option that's both fast and minimizes damage.

JERRY MATYIKO: We'll move the whole thing at once, don't take it apart.

NARRATOR: So, here's the plan: he's going to build a railroad to move the lighthouse back. Step one: dig out a flat surface. Then, clear the soft clay, exposing the structure's granite foundation; build a massive steel platform beneath its base, to support the building and keep it level. Using hydraulic jacks, Jerry will lift the lighthouse, supporting the building on wooden blocks and steel beams, as it rises. Next, he'll slide a set of steel tracks underneath. Rollers, sandwiched between the base of the lighthouse and the rails, will help it slide. A pair of giant pistons will slowly push the lighthouse along the steel rails, 134-feet inland.

At the new footings, the team will use the jacks to lower the building down, build up a new foundation and landscape the area.

At least, that's the plan.

But this move to the new location is not without its risks. With the original architectural plans nowhere to be found, the building could hold secrets that will make their job harder.

JERRY MATYIKO: When you're dealing with these old buildings, there's always surprises, and you just have to be ready for it.

NARRATOR: As if that weren't bad enough, the weather also holds a threat. Hurricane season officially begins on June 1st, only three weeks away.

With climate change, sea levels are rising faster than any time in the last 3,000 years. These factors are likely to speed erosion at Gay Head, putting the lighthouse, literally, on the edge.

JERRY MATYIKO: The worst mover you could get to move it is Mother Nature. If she takes it over the cliff, that's not the way you want to go; you want to go the other way.

NARRATOR: To move the lighthouse to safety, first they have to free it from the earth. So, they will attack the clay beneath the building's granite foundation blocks, digging it out, bit by bit. As the earth comes out, an interlocking grid of thirty steel beams will slide in to support the entire weight of the lighthouse.

It may not look like it, but this heavy labor requires a delicate touch, otherwise the building could tilt.

LEN BUTLER: It's probably the most critical part of the whole operation, because you are taking away what the original builder depended upon for support. You have to be careful not to tip the scale in any way, because the result would be disastrous.

JERRY MATYIKO: We're totally going underneath the lighthouse.

JOEY NIXON (Expert House Movers): That's part of the job.

JERRY MATYIKO: We try to treat it like an old lady, be nice to it. You don't want to ruffle her feathers.

NARRATOR: There's little margin for error. They don't want to over-excavate before the first steel beam is in position, so it must be dug by hand.


NARRATOR: This job falls to Jerry's trusted team of two, Joey and Bush.

IZELLA BUSH: It is really tough. It's physical. It's physical.

JOEY NIXON: It's like a machine. Everybody is a certain part of the machine. Once everybody works together, it continuously runs properly.

NARRATOR: With more than 400 tons of stonework above them as they excavate, they must constantly shore up the structure overhead or risk a crushing cave-in.

They finally make it through 20 feet of heavy clay.

IZELLA BUSH: I have never dug that much dirt before, ever.

NARRATOR: They can only dig away so much, before they must replace the earth with steel.

LEN BUTLER: It's very analogous to threading a needle, so it's a thick thread through a tiny eye.

JOEY NIXON: You got, maybe, four inches on each side of the beam.

JERRY MATYIKO: Work safe. That's the big thing we keep preaching to the guys: work safe.


It doesn't take but a small mistake to have a lot of trouble.

Is it not level yet?

JOEY NIXON: I'm level!

IZELLA BUSH: If it falls down, we're out of business.

JERRY MATYIKO: How's the other side reading?

JOEY NIXON: Yeah, they're both centered!

NARRATOR: It takes two days of hard digging and maneuvering to get the critical first beam in place.

IZELLA BUSH: Oh, once we got that first beam in, it was like you'd won a prize, 'cause you just want to get it done and move on to something else. I mean, that was a physical job.

NARRATOR: But there are 29 beams to go.

Choosing where to relocate the lighthouse means finding a place that will be safe from erosion for generations to come, so Byron Stone, from the U.S. Geological Survey, has been studying the soil composition here.

LEN BUTLER: See, a piece right here.

BYRON STONE (U.S. Geological Survey): Aw, that's a huge block.

LEN BUTLER: A huge block there, about to fail. Yeah, this will soon be down there to join the other ones.

Don't jump.

BYRON STONE: No, no, okay.

NARRATOR: Byron has studied the position of the bluff edge, from maps made between 1870 and 2012. His analysis shows how the cliffs here have been dramatically eroded, over time. Based on this information, the bluffs could retreat a further 125 feet over the next hundred years.

BYRON STONE: The bluffs get eroded by waves at the bottom and by failure at the top. And we also know that's where there are some groundwater springs. We think that those springs weaken the structure of the sand beneath the bluff, and that's what undercuts the steep bluff and sod at the lighthouse.

NARRATOR: The geology beneath the lighthouse is absolutely critical to the long-term survival of the building. Rain and spring water pools to either side of the lighthouse and works its way out through the bluff, causing most of the erosion. Fortunately, a watertight spur of red clay runs directly underneath the lighthouse, providing some protection.

So, they must move the lighthouse back in line with the red clay, by 134 feet. This should give 150 years of protection from the eroding bluffs. They cannot move it back much further. If the lighthouse is too far from the coast, ships close in won't be able to see it.

Ensuring the lighthouse stands tall during the move, engineers are working out how to shore up the building's brittle brickwork.

ENGINEER: Okay, that's good, 132.493.

NARRATOR: They're most worried about two critical weak spots: its walls and foundations. They may not be strong enough to survive the move.

LEN BUTLER: There is a weak level between the watch level and the lantern level. Not many years after it was originally constructed, there was a gale. Two-hundred-mile-an-hour winds shifted the cast iron lantern. It cracked the masonry below. In a sense of panic, a secondary wall was built outside of the original wall to reinforce that structure.

NARRATOR: The bricks of the outer support wall and original inner wall were never interwoven. They are independent of one another. Water becomes trapped between the walls. Repeated freezing and thawing has gradually weakened the watch level.

JOE SCARFONE (Move Engineer): We've got some fungus growing here. I'm not sure what kind of mushrooms these are. I think they're lighthouse mushrooms. I'm not going to try eating them or anything like that, but they are an indication of a moisture condition that exists.

NARRATOR: The double wall means they are moving two watch levels at once, a lighthouse within a lighthouse. If they lift without bracing these walls, it could cause them to slide away from each other, and the tower could shift.

And there's another problem. At the base, two layers of massive granite blocks make up the foundation. As the building's 400-ton weight is transferred to the beams, these blocks could spread. This could destabilize the structure and trigger a collapse, so, to bolster the brickwork, they must build a supporting corset around the walls of the upper level. And they must run steel cables around the base, to hold the foundation stones in a rigid embrace. Together, these will hold the lighthouse firm, as the team lifts and moves it.

JOE SCARFONE: We're trying to maintain a compressed circle, which'll keep the integrity of this wall. Try to get a nice even response out of these cables, make sure they're tensioned up equally. Okay, that should do it.

NARRATOR: Now, Joe must tighten six steel cables around the foundation stones, taking care to maintain even pressure all the way around.

JOE SCARFONE: 'Cause these are segmented pieces, we don't want them separating or shifting in any way, so we'll tighten them up nice and snug and keep them all together.

NARRATOR: But the real challenge lies ahead: raising the lighthouse and rolling it inland, without it falling apart. If they can pull it off, this will be the second lighthouse to be saved from the cliffs here at Gay Head. An earlier wooden structure, built in 1799, had to be hauled away from the crumbling bluffs, by a team of oxen, in 1844. The current brick lighthouse replaced it, in 1856. It was built to house a brand new, world-changing technology, the Fresnel lens.

RICHARD SKIDMORE: It won the Paris Exposition of 1855, before it was sent over here. And it won that gold medal as the highest form of technology of its time.

NARRATOR: The new lens magnified and focused the light, to be visible to ships as far from land as possible and in the worst weather conditions.

RICHARD SKIDMORE: The mechanism, itself, has a thousand-and-eight leaded-glass prisms, all focused to make a flame cast out for 18 to 20 miles. It was just a tremendous thing.

NARRATOR: Even more impressive, considering the light was just a single flame, fueled by whale oil. Maintaining the lighthouse was a serious, 24-hour-a-day job. Charles Vanderhoop, Junior, son of the first Native American lighthouse keeper, recalled his father's dedication, in a rare audio recording.

CHARLES VANDERHOOP, JUNIOR (Son of Charles Vanderhoop/Audio Recording): My father used to be keeper of the Gay Head Light. They used to go and wipe off the windows and everything on the outside, every day. You've got to stand on the railing. You were way up high; a lot of work involved.

The lens and the thing it turned on weighed roughly two tons. To show you how well balanced it was, you could push it around with a finger. Two tons!

NARRATOR: In 1951, Aquinnah became the last community in Massachusetts to be electrified. And the next year, the flame was doused, when a modern lamp replaced the Fresnel lens.

But most key parts of the structure are much older and present their own challenges. In particular, the seventeen-and-a-half tons of cast-iron staircase, whose deck and center column are about to lose the support provided by the ground below.

LEN BUTLER: If that was left unsupported, it most likely would come crashing down during the move and bring the building with it.

NARRATOR: The historic spiral staircase is made up of 55 steps and three heavy cast-iron floors. They are welded into a center column, supported by a massive granite block. As the team digs the earth from underneath the foundation, this column will become unsupported. The heavy ironwork could drop out.

So, they must build giant support beams into the lighthouse to prop up the center column for the move. They must also tie the lower stairs tightly together with steel cables. The beams and cables should hold the staircase firm as the team lifts and moves the lighthouse.

JOE SCARFONE: We've tensioned this up, and the stairs are hanging on this rigging that we've got in place. We want to keep everything just as it was built.

NARRATOR: The iron innards of the lighthouse are locked in place and ready for the move. Jerry can now remove the block underneath the center column to make space for the last steel beams.

JOEY NIXON: We're going to try to drop it down between the beams. We want to have it under super-control, so we don't have no problems.

One more time, it's getting ready to come. It's getting ready; here it comes.

I love my job.

Hold on, Jerry.

NARRATOR: All 400-tons of brickwork and cast iron are now completely free from the earth.

JERRY MATYIKO: It's my lighthouse now 'cause it's sitting on my equipment. We'll give it back to the islanders at the end of next week.

NARRATOR: It takes a further three days to insert the rest of the steel.

Jerry must stay on schedule to complete the move, before the risk of storms increases. At the same time, a team of archaeologists work alongside the engineers to preserve any artifacts they recover.

HOLLY HERBSTER (Public Archaeology Laboratory): The archaeology is going to give everyone a little snapshot into what daily life was like, here at the lighthouse.

NARRATOR: Alongside fragments of pottery and fossilized clams, the archaeologists have made some surprising discoveries.

HOLLY HERBSTER: This is one of the most exciting things that we've found here at the lighthouse. This is a clay smoking pipe. It probably dates to the late 19th century. The bowl itself is a man's hand, probably imported from England. We assume that this may have been used by the lighthouse keeper, smoking his pipe outside, perhaps looking out at the ocean. And it's just a really neat find for us.

NARRATOR: Over its 160-year-long history, the lighthouse has shared the cliffs with many other structures, now long gone.

HOLLY HERBSTER: There have been two keeper's houses, a number of storage buildings, a few wood houses, a garage, a barn. And then, during World War II, there was an observation tower that was built next to the lighthouse, to keep an eye on what was going on, out on the coastline.

NARRATOR: Although no trace of the observation tower remains, an armored bunker that was once perched on the cliff to spot German U-Boats, has since fallen down to the base. The bunker may have led to some misleading conclusions about another small artifact.

HOLLY HERBSTER: When we first saw it pop up in the screen, the first reaction, upon seeing this pin, was that it was some type of Nazi propaganda.

NARRATOR: But, in fact, it has a very different history.

HOLLY HERBSTER: It's not a swastika. It's a Native design, as a piece of commemorative jewelry or costume jewelry that was manufactured sometime in the first three decades of the 20th century. And the design was known as the whirling log motif. It's possible that this could have been sold at one of the shops up at the cliffs.

NARRATOR: Martha's Vineyard is known to the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe as "Noepe." Since the 19th century, the community has been part of the tourism industry here, selling souvenirs and operating restaurants. Today, the shops next to the Gay Head Light are all owned and run by Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribal members.

MARTHA VANDERHOOP (Shopkeeper): It is $18.95, please.

CUSTOMER: There you go!

MARTHA VANDERHOOP: Thank you, so much!

CUSTOMER: Bye bye.

MARTHA VANDERHOOP: This is our ancestral home, we are probably one of the few tribes in the United State Nations that has not been relocated, has not been moved. We have always been here. Our creation story tells us that Moshup brought us here.

NARRATOR: Oral tradition describes the Wampanoag leader, a giant, called Moshup, who created Noepe and the surrounding islands.

MARTHA VANDERHOOP: At that time, the whales were very plentiful, so he would wade into the water and catch the whales to feed to our people. And he would smash it against the clay cliffs, and the blood from the whales colored our clay cliffs the deep, deep red.

NARRATOR: Today, the colorful cliffs and the Gay Head Light draw tourists from all over the world.

MARTHA VANDERHOOP: So many people come into the store here and say that this is on their bucket list. I think it would be very difficult to survive without the lighthouse.

NARRATOR: But in order to survive, this move must succeed.

JERRY MATYIKO: Come on down, nice and easy.

NARRATOR: Jerry is gearing up to tackle the next big challenge. It's the final step before actually moving the building. They must lift it straight up, creating a four-foot clearance, to make room for the tracks that will guide it to the new site.

Jerry has built 16 jacks into the steelwork to lift the building. A powerful motor will force hydraulic oil, under extreme pressure, down reinforced hoses. The pressurized oil will extend the jacks, raising the steel beams and lighthouse. It's just like jacking up a car to change a tire.

They will use wooden blocks and extra steel to prop the building up as they lift it, until there is enough space to slide in the tracks. All the steelwork together with the structure now weighs over 400 tons. So the load on Jerry's machinery will be immense.

JERRY MATYIKO: Okay, pressuring up on five.

JOEY NIXON: The lift is about to happen.

JERRY MATYIKO: Okay, guys, the Gay Head Lighthouse is coming up.

NARRATOR: This is a custom-built machine. Jerry can use it to control groups of jacks, or he can direct it to exert a unified force across all of the jacks, distributing the load evenly, to prevent tilting.

Two feet up, two to go.

JERRY MATYIKO: Keep jacking, just keep jacking.

LEN BUTLER: Right now, the lighthouse is completely off the ground. It is being held up by hydraulic fluid.

NARRATOR: But as they reach the halfway stage of the lift, the operation suddenly grinds to a halt.

JERRY MATYIKO: Something stopped. See if you've got a leak in there anywhere, and check the driveshaft. I think there went my Wednesday schedule. As soon as you start bragging you're doing good, then it bites you in the butt.

NARRATOR: After refilling the oil, cleaning the filter…

JERRY MATYIKO: We're hoping that's the culprit right there.

NARRATOR: …and taking the engine apart, the team finds the problem, and it's serious.

JERRY MATYIKO: There's a shear pin in there, and it has sheared.

MECHANIC: It's broke and not allowing the engine to spin the hydraulic motor.

JERRY MATYIKO: And you can't buy this shear pin in an automotive store.

JOE SCARFONE: Some simple little item like this, three- or four-dollar item, is holding up the whole show right now.

NARRATOR: Simple, but not common, it could take days to find a replacement.

A long holdup will increase the chances of this epic rescue operation being derailed by a storm. Jerry has just one option.

JERRY MATYIKO: I've got a lot of friends in the house moving business. I'm going to go borrow a machine!

Bobby, my machine died. If you get this, give me a call.

Yeah, we're calling in favors. You could sit back and wait, but that puts you in last place.

Hey, George. Any way I could borrow a jack machine?

You could take a picture of your machine jacking the lighthouse up, how's that? I won't even charge you.

NARRATOR: After racking up his phone bill, Jerry gets lucky.

JERRY MATYIKO: Can't let one monkey stop the show. We're going to get a jack machine.

NARRATOR: The replacement jacking machine arrives the next morning, but it's far from the latest model.

JERRY MATYIKO: This is probably built in the '50s, so it's got some age. It's older than I am. No, it's not older than I am either, forget that.

NARRATOR: Their plans could be seriously disrupted if this machine isn't up to the job. With some trepidation, Jerry starts it up.

JERRY MATYIKO: This one's got eight and a quarter. Eight and a quarter?

JOEY NIXON: Slowly, but surely.

NARRATOR: To make sure the structure doesn't lean; Joey and Bush build up wooden blocks beneath the rising lighthouse.

IZELLA BUSH: You've got to maintain a steady pace, and don't think about the pain and heartaches you're going to have later.

NARRATOR: They're discovering that this machine is far slower than Jerry's. It takes longer than expected to raise the lighthouse the full four feet into the air. But after the glitch with Jerry's machine…

JERRY MATYIKO: Catch him off, boys, catch him off.

NARRATOR: …it's a huge relief.

JERRY MATYIKO: We get a laser. I think we're high enough, as high as that building's going for the next hundred years.

LEN BUTLER: This is a huge moment. This is historic. I've got to pinch myself today.

JERRY MATYIKO: I don't know where the champagne went, but a beer will have to do.

NARRATOR: But Jerry can't afford to celebrate for long.

JERRY MATYIKO: Joey, can you hear me?

NARRATOR: Finally, after almost three weeks, they've reached the most complex stage of this rescue operation, the move itself. This is all about precision. It's important this lighthouse sits in the center of its new footing and at the correct elevation. This is the best location, both in terms of geology and to make the lighthouse visible to ships.

In order to position the lighthouse, they use lasers and plumb bobs to align the tracks.

JOEY NIXON: Hold up, Jerry!

Precision is important because the littlest out of alignment could cause it to go left or right, and we would be off their center mark.

NARRATOR: Everything is set for the big move. This is the plan. The team has placed small steel rollers between the rails and the steel platform. The rollers will help ease the lighthouse smoothly along the tracks. Two giant pistons at the rear will thrust the building forward, retract and thrust again. Once the lighthouse has travelled along a length of track, the crew will leapfrog the rails around to the front of the building, extending the steel railway to the new site.

This ingenious concept of sliding massive buildings, intact, along steel rails dates back over a hundred years. A builder from Pittsburgh, named John Eichleay, Junior, refined a series of trailblazing techniques that house movers like Jerry Matyiko still draw on today. Eichleay masterminded perhaps the most audacious house move in history.

When the owner of a huge mansion, in Pittsburgh, wanted it moved out of the path of a new railway line, Eichleay proposed lifting the 800-ton structure to the top of the 160-foot cliff right behind. He used 300 hand-operated screw jacks to lift the mansion, propping it up on 20,000 blocks of wood as it rose. They used rollers to move the structure back, recycling the blocks and rails. The mansion crept up the cliff face at the stately pace of seven inches an hour. Amazingly, they reached the top of the cliff in just a hundred days. Sadly, the mansion burned down 10 years later.

Jerry will now use the same technique to slide the Gay Head Lighthouse away from the cliff and on to its new home.

8 a.m., the day of the big move: this is the critical maneuver the whole community has been working towards for three years.

BUDDY VANDERHOOP: It's coming to a new home, but it's in the same neighborhood, better neighborhood! It's a great, great feeling.

MITZI PRATT (Save the Gay Head Lighthouse committee): We first started thinking about it more than five years ago, and we're almost there.

NARRATOR: But Jerry's anxious about the dangers ahead.

JERRY MATYIKO: Old buildings aren't designed to be moved. This lighthouse certainly wasn't meant to be moved.

BYRON STONE: It blows my mind that you can get this amount of weight balanced on these teeter-totters. It's pick-up-sticks for big boys.

NARRATOR: There's just one last critical element of preparation.

JOEY NIXON: …plain old soap bar. The soap will help reduce the friction, as we're rolling.

NARRATOR: Even though they are moving the building only 134 feet, it will take at least 48 hours of intense activity to get the job done.

JOEY NIXON: Zone 1's locked off.

NARRATOR: Jerry pressurizes the pistons, and they're off.

JERRY MATYIKO: Rock and roll! We're moving.

She's rolling!

NARRATOR: The Gay Head Light is finally moving away from the eroding cliffs, but at a snail's pace.

JOEY NIXON: We're working on the first stroke out, moving very well.

NARRATOR: Over 400 tons of steel and masonry roll down the tracks at four inches a minute.

JOEY NIXON: Who's got the longest stroke?

JERRY MATYIKO: Twenty-six?

What you got?

JOEY NIXON: One inch.

JERRY MATYIKO: Okay, unclamp it.

NARRATOR: The team completes the first stage, five feet down, 129 to go. They must now retract the pistons and clamp them in place for the next push.

JERRY MATYIKO: We're moving!

NARRATOR: Inch by inch, the lighthouse slowly creeps inland.

Jerry's son Gabe knows that the team must be vigilant at all times. The slightest oversight could cause the tower to topple.

GABE MATYIKO: If you have a problem, and somebody doesn't catch it, or there's an issue, there's a possible catastrophic failure.

JERRY MATYIKO: I want to know if ya'll see any of them rollers leaning or anything.

NARRATOR: It takes a whole day to move 50 feet. But as they pick up the pace, they hit a major problem.

GABE MATYIKO: Yeah, it's moving, just real slow. Something's not plumbed right.

JERRY MATYIKO: Yeah, we're looking at it right now.

NARRATOR: Jerry applies more hydraulic pressure to the oil in the hoses, but a blockage, somewhere, stops the fluid from flowing to the pistons and pushing the lighthouse forward.

Hundreds of feet of hoses connected to dozens of individual valves and fittings make up his system.

JERRY MATYIKO: Okay, we got a bad connection here.

NARRATOR: Hunting down the blockage is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

JERRY MATYIKO: Here it is, right here. Whoever's in charge up here is screwing up.

GABE MATYIKO: The lines are connected with threads, and the threads are tightened with wrenches, so it's a human process. So, sometimes, what happens is if something gets in there and blocks the flow, you have pressure relief valves, that are made to relieve themselves at a certain pressure, and that gives an indication that something is not hooked up right.

NARRATOR: Finding the fault has eaten up valuable time.

JERRY MATYIKO: Okay, let's give it a try.

NARRATOR: They're approaching the halfway mark. To continue, they must now pick up the rear set of tracks and set them in front of the lighthouse.

JERRY MATYIKO: Lock your zones off, Joe!

JOEY NIXON: Zone 2's locked off.

GABE MATYIKO: We're good.

JOEY NIXON: It's moving! There she goes.

NARRATOR: It takes almost 40 hours to make it to the edge of the new footing.

LEN BUTLER: This is our final push. We only have a little over 20 feet more to go.

NARRATOR: The team is nearly there, but they cannot afford to lose focus. They must hit their mark.

LEN BUTLER: I'm going to keep my eye on that plumb bob, and when we get over that nail, I'm going to yell, "Stop!" And, at that point, the eagle has landed.

LINDA WILLIAMS (Lighthouse Groupie): I'm a lighthouse groupie, yes, indeed. I'm a very big fan. I've visited over 400 lighthouses. There are some that are very, very special, and Gay Head is one of them. So, I had to be here.

MALE OBSERVER: This light shined in my windows every night. I went to sleep with it, every night, and coming back and watching this move is just pretty incredible.

LEN BUTLER: We've got 15 more feet to go.

Pull. Heave. Pull!

JERRY MATYIKO: Things can screw up at the last minute. That's when you want to be extra careful, everybody gets lax, not watching. All the joking's over then.

Rollers look okay?

JOEY NIXON: Yeah, they're going pretty straight.

LEN BUTLER: We're only about three feet away. Three little feet…two feet.

NARRATOR: Finally, the team is about to discover if they will hit their target…

LEN BUTLER: Twenty inches.

NARRATOR: …the dead center of the footing.

LEN BUTLER: Five, four, three, two…one little inch.

JOEY NIXON: All right, Jerry.


NARRATOR: They've positioned the lighthouse directly over the new footing…

LEN BUTLER: We're there, everybody. We're there.

NARRATOR: …and it's perfectly aligned. But the job's not done. The lighthouse is still four feet above its final elevation. And right on cue, the first storm of the season threatens to roll in.

IZELLA BUSH: Oh, my god.

LEN BUTLER: One hellacious storm is on its way.

NARRATOR: The exposed steelwork turns the tower into a giant lightning rod. It's crucial they ground the building to avoid a lightning strike that could injure the crew.

Quickly, they release the pressure on the jacks…

IZELLA BUSH: Open the valve!

JERRY MATYIKO: All right, Joey, now.

NARRATOR: …gradually lowering the 400-ton structure.

IZELLA BUSH: Coming down to seven.

LEN BUTLER: Ok, two, three, so, we're good this way.

JERRY MATYIKO: You seven, Bush? Coming down to eight.

LEN BUTLER: Two-point-one, two degrees this way.

JERRY MATYIKO: Coming down to two.

LEN BUTLER: One more inch, we'll be home.

We're there. That's it. We're right on elevation. I'm the man!

NARRATOR: The team has completed their mission, and the storm passes to the north of the island.

LEN BUTLER: We are right over the spot of the new home of the lighthouse, where it will stand for another 160 years or longer.

JERRY MATYIKO: Now, that's the hydraulic pressure I like.

LEN BUTLER: To the Gay Head Light, long live the light.

IZELLA BUSH: Victory is too sweet. I'll be soon to go home.

NARRATOR: Over the next nine weeks, they build support walls between the foundations and the base of the lighthouse, remove all the steel and fill in the move path. They can now landscape the whole area.

LEN BUTLER: The lighthouse was here. Now, we are 180-some-odd feet from the danger of the cliff. And if we have to move it again, by god, we'll move it again.

NARRATOR: Final task: switch on the light, just as hurricane season gets underway.

LEN BUTLER: During bad weather, like this, is when ships really need us, so, it's very fitting that we should be relighting in this kind of inclement weather.

RICHARD SKIDMORE: It's only with the help of many, many, many people that this magnificent move got accomplished…very pleased.

JERRY MATYIKO: Oh, this community? It was just so much fun working for these people. They just were overwhelming.

LEN BUTLER: Four, three, two, one.

NARRATOR: It's taken over $3,000,000, 800 blocks of wood, 10 tons of steel and some ingenious engineering, but the historic Gay Head Light is saved.

LEN BUTLER: We didn't want to just move a nice building as a tourist attraction; we wanted to keep its function, because that is a part of the fabric of our town. And we are going to keep it shining for mariners for generations to come.

Broadcast Credits

Joby Lubman
Carlo Massarella
Paul Shepard
Joby Lubman
Greg Martino
Dan Martino
Tim Clarkson
Eric Meyers
Tim Clarkson
Oliver Graham
JUNIOR Production Manager
Liza Krug
Karen Lee
Sara Revell
Kristina Obradovic
Sue Harvard
Fluid Pictures
Philip Michael
Online Editor
Luke Carter
Vicki Matich
Audio Mix
Bob Jackson
Archival Material
Nate Bolt
The Collection of the Martha's Vineyard Museum
Greg Donohue
John Eichleay
Getty Images
Nantucket Historical Association
Capt. Charles Vanderhoop (1921-2001) interviewed by Linsey Lee in 2000, Courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum
David Welch
The Save the Gay Head Lighthouse Committee
Expert House Movers
International Chimney Corporation
International Association of Structural Movers
Pomroy Associates LLC
Sourati Engineering Group
United States Geological Survey
The Public Archaeology Laboratory
Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)
John Keene Excavation
Martha’s Vineyard Museum
United States Coast Guard
GEI Consultants
Montauk Point Lighthouse
First Coastal
Andy Goldsworthy
yU + co.
Walter Werzowa
John Luker
Musikvergnuegen, Inc.
Ray Loring
Rob Morsberger
The Caption Center
Spencer Gentry
Jennifer Welsh
Eileen Campion
Eddie Ward
Diane Toomey
Caitlin Rotman Saks
Anne Barleon
Linda Callahan
Sarah Erlandson
Janice Flood
Susan Rosen
Kristine Allington
Tim De Chant
Lauren Aguirre
Lauren Miller
Ariam McCrary
Ezra Wolfinger
Brittany Flynn
Kevin Young
Michael H. Amundson
Nathan Gunner
Elizabeth Benjes
David Condon
Pamela Rosenstein
Laurie Cahalane
Evan Hadingham
Chris Schmidt
Melanie Wallace
Julia Cort
Alan Ritsko
Paula S. Apsell

A NOVA Production by Windfall Films Ltd. (part of the Argonon Group) for WGBH Boston

© 2016 Windfall Films Ltd. (part of the Argonon Group)

All rights reserved

Original funding for this program was provided by Google, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, the Montgomery Family Foundation, the David H. Koch Fund for Science and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


Image credit: (Gay Head Lighthouse)
© Joby Lubman/Windfall Films


Izella Bush
Expert House Movers
Len Butler
Lighthouse Relocation Committee
Holly Herbster
Public Archaeology Laboratory
Gabe Matyiko
Expert House Movers
Jerry Matyiko
Expert House Movers
Joe Scarfone
International Chimney Corporation
Richard Skidmore
Gay Head Lighthouse Keeper
Byron Stone
U. S. Geological Survey
Buddy Vanderhoop
Charter Fisherman
Martha Vanderhoop
Granddaughter of Charles Vanderhoop, Sr.

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