Built over 200 years ago in a small Wampanoag community at the tip of an island in the Atlantic, the Gay Head Lighthouse is one of America's most famous beacons. From whaling days to electrification, ``Keepers of the Light`` tells the story of evolving technology, heroism and shipwrecks, and the people who are called upon in each generation to keep the light, woven with the story of the recent race against time to save the historic beacon from falling over the edge of the rapidly eroding cliffs.
At the end of the 18th century, as whaling Captains amassed fortunes from the oil of whales, Senator Peleg from Massachusetts requested the light to protect ships from the treacherous “Devil’s Bridge.” President John Adams authorized the lighthouse and the Federal taking of the property to put it on. The check to pay for its construction was cut by Alexander Hamilton. Paul Revere supplied metal for the roof.
Before American highways, the waterways off of the East Coast were an important way to transport goods and commodities up and down the coast and beyond. Martha’s Vineyard Sound, at the height of its nautical traffic, was second only to the English Channel in number of vessels per day. It was in the context of the importance of whale’s oil and then the industrial revolution that the Gay Head Lighthouse became one of the most important lighthouses on the East Coast.
The light sits atop the famous clay cliffs of Aquinnah in the Wampanoag homeland. The cliffs themselves reveal historic geological events over a span of millions of years. These cliffs were also home to Moshup, the giant from the creation story for the Wampanoag, who say that Moshup began to build a bridge of boulders from the western tip
of Martha’s Vineyard to the mainland to help reach relatives. Fished for millennium by Wampanoag, this rock structure makes up the backbone of “Moshup’s Bridge.” For ship captains, these rocks jutting out of the water were renamed “Devil’s Bridge” for their ability to breach the hulls of wayward vessels that plied these waters to feed the mouths of their families and the growth of a nation.
In recent years, it became clear that the receding cliff was beginning to threaten the lighthouse itself. The community understood that if they did not take decisive action, the lighthouse would be lost forever. In 2013, the lighthouse was declared one of America’s 11 most endangered places, and the island’s residents began to rally to save the iconic lighthouse from the encroaching edge of the cliff. The story of the lighthouse quickly became of interest around the world, and journalists encroached on the town of Aquinnah from all corners of the globe, attracted by the story of the Gay Head Light and the community’s efforts to save her.
The film structure weaves the modern narrative arc of community efforts to save the light with the history of the lighthouse. These historic events unfold chronologically, revealing connections between the past and present. This is a story of a technical marvel that boosted a tourism industry, and an award winning lifesaving crew that came to the rescue in the worst shipwreck in American History of its time. It is the story of evolving technology and energy sources, and the story of the growth of a nation and the rise and fall of the importance of lighthouses in America as aids to navigation, and their ability to continue to capture our hearts and speak to our collective history. To bring this story to life, we utilize archival footage, rare photographs from private collections, letters, historic records, and perspective from Wampanoag tribal members, Aquinnah town residents and lighthouse and maritime historians.