WPI Project Puts Lighthouses in the Spotlight

Contact: WPI Media Relations, 508-831-5616

WORCESTER, Mass. -- Two WPI students were hard at work when they were hitting the beaches at Martha's Vineyard last summer. For their Interactive Qualifying Project, a WPI requirement, seniors Edward J. Cameron of Woodinville, Wash., and Eric C. Wilhelm of Essex, Mass., helped the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society chart the right course in its plans to restore three lighthouses on the island.

While the Coast Guard owns and operates all five lighthouses on Martha's Vineyard, federal budget cuts mean that it can maintain only the structures' automated beacons. As a result, interested civic and historical organizations are left to determine how to preserve the towers¾and pay the bills. The Martha's Vineyard Historical Society is the "keeper" of the Gay Head, Edgartown and East Chop lighthouses. The Edgartown tower is currently closed to the public; the other two are open only during specific hours.

Cameron and Wilhelm conducted detailed surveys of these lighthouses. They spoke with experts, dug up historical facts in local libraries, evaluated maintenance records, researched other lighthouse restorations, and documented their findings with numerous photographs. On-site visual inspections were key to the project. Local contractors and representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard and the historical society accompanied the students on their visits to the lighthouses.

In a few years, the results of their efforts may shine in the island's harbors for all to see. On June 28, the historical society will formally announce the beginning of a three-year campaign to raise funds to repair the lighthouses-anticipated to cost "in the mid-six figures," according to director Bruce Andrews. The public reception will include a tour of the usually closed Edgartown lighthouse and the unveiling of limited-edition prints of watercolors of the lighthouses by Ray Ellis. Proceeds from the sale of the prints, which were rendered exclusively for the society, will benefit the restoration project.

The students' 82-page report¾from meticulous condition assessments to specific recommendations for safe, sensible and attractive restoration and upkeep¾has been an invaluable guide for the historical society as it has embarked on the huge undertaking, says WPI English Professor Wesley Mott, who served as IQP advisor. "The work Eric and Ed did was very helpful," says Andrews. "They helped us establish what really needs to be done and did an excellent job."

The students report that the problem with lighthouses is that they are no longer essential in the world of commercial shipping. The advent of radio beacons, global positioning satellites and the modern compass have made the traditional lighthouse obsolete to all but those who cannot afford the equipment. "Due to the uniqueness of lighthouses by nature, there is no ready-made plan for the restoration of a lighthouse," they say. They also note that, in addition to technology and construction issues, cost is a major concern for a civic organization such as the historical society.

The students agree that the lighthouses are well worth saving for the benefit of mariners and as treasured symbols of the island's seafaring past. Their IQP report detailed the history of the five lighthouses and identified the work that needs to be done to upgrade them.

The Gay Head Lighthouse, a distinctive red brick tower constructed in 1799 and rebuilt in 1856, has long served as a romantic symbol of the sea and the island's history. It requires major masonry work. "The decay of the brick in some places will soon, in the next 25 to 50 years, endanger the integrity of the structure as a whole," the students write. "The most critical problem is for repointing (replacing much of the mortar between the bricks) and resealing the brick and mortar." The equivalent of as much as four miles of joint may be involved." The students found that some bricks had disintegrated, while others are pitted from wind-driven debris from the nearby cliffs. "Salt has worked into the brickwork over the years and will need to be purged from the brick before any new material can be introduced or any sealing can be done."

The deteriorating Edgartown lighthouse, a cast iron structure painted white with black trim, was brought to its present location from Ipswich, Mass., about 60 years ago to replace the original lighthouse, built in 1828 on a manmade island a quarter-mile from shore. Supplies, including a spiral staircase to replace the unsafe ladder there now, can be brought in by barge or by four-wheel-drive vehicles along sandy, narrow paths. The post-Civil War East Chop lighthouse, also cast iron, is in a quiet residential area and as is the least visited by tourists. Parking is a major need here.

The students say that concrete and metal work, carpentry, window repairs in the cupolas and elsewhere, mold removal, sealing and ventilation, and repainting are needed at each of the lighthouses. Rust, such as on the lightning rod at the top of the Edgartown tower, is one of a number of pervasive problems caused by time and exposure.

But the students concluded that the overall condition of the lighthouses is good. Most of the work needed at the Edgartown and East Chop lighthouses, while extensive, is cosmetic except for a staircase at the Edgartown tower. The students recommended that the Edgartown lighthouse be restored first, then Gay Head, then East Chop. They also suggested that the historical society consider establishing small gift shops within each lighthouse, along with historical and informational displays.

"Lighthouses are icons of romance, history, and local pride," says Mott, who lives on Martha's Vineyard. "But up and down our coasts they are silently and surely falling victim to the forces of time, the elements, and severe budget cuts. Ed Cameron and Eric Wilhelm, joining a six-year tradition of IQPs with the Vineyard Museum, have provided a real service to lovers of history and all who admire these still-serviceable reminders of our past."Cameron and Wilhelm are both majoring in mechanical engineering. Cameron, son of Edward and Emiko Cameron, of Woodinville, Wash., graduated from Woodinville High School. At WPI, he is editor-in-chief of Newspeak, the campus newspaper, chairman of the WPI chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), and a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).

Wilhelm, son of Kurt and Mary Wilhelm of Essex, Mass., is a graduate of Hamilton-Wenham High School in Hamilton, Mass. He is sports editor of Newspeak, captain of the men's crew team, and a member of Tau Beta Phi, the national engineering honor society.

The IQP is one of three projects all WPI undergraduates undertake as part of the innovative WPI Plan, a flexible and academically challenging program introduced in 1972. Under the Plan, students are provided with unique opportunities to integrate classroom studies with preprofessional academic projects conducted on campus or at companies, agencies and project sites in the U.S. and abroad. The purpose of the IQP is to make students aware of their responsibilities to manage technology effectively and ethically.

An independent technological university founded in 1865, WPI is renowned for its project-based educational program. Under the WPI Plan, students are provided with unique opportunities to integrate classroom studies with preprofessional projects conducted on campus and at off-campus locations around the world.

WPI was ranked among the top 50 national universities in the 1997 edition of U.S. News and World Report's Best Colleges Guide and was ranked 35th among the top national institutions in the magazine's Best College Values report.