Relocating a 460-Ton Lighthouse Is No Big Deal to This Mega-Mover

Gay Head Lighthouse
Jerry Matyiko and Joe Scarfone take measurements at Gay Head Light on Martha's Vineyard. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg

Chewing a cheap cigar atop an old bulldozer, Jerry Matyiko is at work in his office -- the stunning, colorful and rapidly eroding cliffs of Gay Head on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Matyiko is in town to rescue a local treasure.

The 68-year-old Navy veteran moves stuff -- big stuff, like airport terminals and multistory office buildings -- and he’s come to the Vineyard to do something he’s done before: save an old lighthouse from being lost to erosion and falling into the sea. This time it’s the red brick Gay Head Light built in 1856, a scenic attraction and still a functional beacon for sailors.

His craft, learned from his father, has been his life for 40 years. “You’re getting something done,” says Matyiko, a Hungarian name pronounced Ma-TEE-ko. “When you sit behind a desk, you ain’t done (expletive).”

This is Matyiko’s sixth lighthouse rescue, and the work promises to be one of the resort island’s top attractions as it heads into summer on this Memorial Day weekend. In 1999 he moved the 208-foot Cape Hatteras beacon in North Carolina, the tallest in the U.S., more than a half-mile from the encroaching ocean. Crowds watching were so big that restaurant and shop owners asked him to slow down the job so they could continue to reap the rewards.

Massive Prep Work

The Martha’s Vineyard job has been under way for a couple of months -- massive prep work that must be done before the structure is moved an inch. As with any of his jobs, Matyiko doesn’t take apart a structure and he doesn’t lift it off the ground with a crane. He builds a network of giant steel beams underneath and sends the structures down twin rails -- traveling on rollers only feet in an hour. Once the Gay Head lighthouse starts moving, it will take two or three days to go 134 feet -- a destination determined to safeguard its stability for a minimum of another 150 years.

The current Gay Head Light replaced the first one built in 1799 and is the only lighthouse in the U.S. with a history of Native American lighthouse keepers. It weighs 460 tons, almost a million pounds. It is located in the town of Aquinnah on the island’s remote western tip two miles from Red Gate Farm, once the summer home of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis now owned by her daughter Caroline. It was off the waters of Aquinnah that John Kennedy Jr.’s airplane went down in 1999.

The Wampanoag tribe considers the entire area sacred ground. The exposed veins of red, black and ochre clay in the cliffs are the result of glacial upheaval.

The lighthouse sits 46 feet from the edge of sharply eroded cliffs. Project officials say they need at least 36 feet to make the move, leaving a 10-foot buffer that could disappear in two years, three, nobody really knows.

“Who doesn’t love a lighthouse?” says Matyiko, whose beard and salty language makes it easy to picture him at the wheel of a ship, looking for help from this navigational beacon.

Efforts to preserve lighthouses on both U.S. coasts have never been stronger, says Tim Harrison, founder of Lighthouse Digest in East Machias, Maine. Harrison’s doomsday list names 45 in danger of being left to crumble or taken by the sea, including Gay Head.

A local group called Save the Gay Head Lighthouse has so far has raised $3 million and needs another $400,000 to complete the project. The group’s subcommittee charged with the move itself is chaired by Len Butler, 66, an Aquinnah builder who coordinates the various teams hired for the project.

Matyiko’s company, Expert House Movers of Maryland, was hired by International Chimney Corp. of Williamsville, New York. No other twosome has more experience with lighthouses like Gay Head that are made entirely of brick. More fragile than those made of cast iron or granite blocks, these lighthouses need specialized care, according to Richard Pomroy, project manager who runs his own Massachusetts engineering firm.

One of Matyiko’s strengths is the ability to change his game plan as conditions change, Pomroy said. “He has the great ability to go by the seat of his pants if he has to,” he said.

64 Tons of Steel

A week ago Matyiko began installing almost two dozen girders weighing a total of 64 tons, all of it hauled by his driver from Maryland then onto a ferry in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and finally to the island.

The next step is what Matyiko describes as the most difficult part of the job: using all that steel to construct what is known as the moving frame. The process can take days or even weeks.

First step at Gay Head: to get under the lighthouse with a first set of steel H beams. Matyiko has his crew dig tunnels under the lighthouse base. Into each of these tunnels are placed crossbeams more than 40-feet long. These beams are all jacked up, pushing the lighthouse two feet or so into the air. Into the gap between lighthouse and ground goes a railroad-track system of other beams pointed toward the final destination. Hydraulic rams are attached to the track system and push the lighthouse on the tracks to its endpoint.

Finally, a new foundation is built around the lighthouse. The earth initially removed from the clifftop is returned and the area re-landscaped.

Family Business

Matyiko’s experience moving large objects came early. The youngest of four brothers, Matyiko was born and raised in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Like his siblings, he went to work for his father who, in 1955, began moving military housing. All four eventually took over the business.

Matyiko joined the Naval Reserve at 15, telling recruiters he was 18. A good defensive football player and skilled wrestler, he graduated from high school but never finished college. He eventually served six months in Vietnam as a Navy Seabee constructing metal buildings and and went on to serve a couple of years in an elite underwater demolition team today known as the SEALs.

By the early 70s, Matyiko moved to Sharptown, Maryland, where he established his own moving company. His skills have taken him to Newark, New Jersey, where he moved an old airport terminal for historical preservation. He has done jobs in Peru, Chile and Malta. Five years ago, he went to Saudi Arabia to bid on moving an office building owned by a brother of Osama bin Laden who eventually decided not to move the building, Matyiko said.

He and his wife, Joan, have been married for 37 years and have three children. His son, Gabriel, in business with him, has been moving a four-story building in Washington while he’s been on Martha’s Vineyard.

His first lighthouse move came in 1993. The Southeast Lighthouse on tiny Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island was in danger of tumbling off a cliff. In 1996, he moved Highland Lighthouse in Truro, Massachusetts, for the same reason followed months later by Nauset Light in Eastham, also on Cape Cod.

He moved the Cape Hatteras Light in North Carolina in 1999 and then Sankaty Head Lighthouse on Nantucket in 2007.

Back on the job site at Gay Head, Matyiko moved the first giant girder last Friday. He spent most of the morning measuring then coaxing the beam into place under the lighthouse. By noon, Matyiko was in his red GMC Sierra, gobbling down a sandwich and talking about why the job is still so much fun.

“Retire?” he said. “When I fall down and I can’t get up or when a house falls on me. I just hope it’s a big one.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE