Md. mover shines under beam of R.I. lighthouse Shore firm proposed a creative way to transport 118-year-old landmark

August 26, 1993|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

BLOCK ISLAND, R.I. -- Only once did Jerry Matyiko question whether he could move the majestic Southeast Lighthouse here on Block Island. He climbed a 60-foot tower and gazed down upon the massive brick structure.

"Those beams looked awful small under that big building," recalls Mr. Matyiko, a 46-year-old house mover from Maryland. "But then I remembered something an old house mover once told me: No matter how large the building, don't let it overwhelm you."

But a lighthouse? Nobody had ever moved a lighthouse this large before, especially a 118-year-old, five-story lighthouse with attached keeper's dwelling weighing 2,000 tons and perched perilously close to an eroding cliff.

Mr. Matyiko assembled a team of experts that devised a plan involving steel beams, rollers and hydraulic jacks for lifting the fragile brick structure in one piece, and then nudging it along steel tracks waxed with, of all things, Ivory soap.

In the past two weeks, as house movers and tourists from across the country ferried in to watch, he and his team have moved the historic lighthouse -- the highest in New England and brightest on the Atlantic coast -- 245 feet back from the cliff. Today they plan on lowering it onto its new foundation, where it will be preserved for another 100 years.

"This isn't the biggest building that's ever been moved," Mr. Matyiko says, "but it's probably the most photographed and publicized."

Mr. Matyiko, fit and bouncy with a handsome round face, founded Expert House Movers in Sharptown in Wicomico County in 1973. He had moved to the Eastern Shore from Virginia Beach, Va., where his 280-pound father, Big John the House Mover, a gregarious Hungarian, had become something of a house-moving legend -- before dying in a car wreck at 48.

That left Big John's four sons -- Johnny, Joe, Jimmy and Jerry -- to carry on the legacy, which they did until Jerry, the youngest, broke free and resettled in Maryland. They still work together occasionally, as they did moving the lighthouse.

"This is the job we've been looking for," Jerry Matyiko says. "This puts us in a class that's, no question, top of the line."

To make sure nobody misses the point, Mr. Matyiko had EXPERT HOUSE MOVERS painted in 26-inch bold red letters on long steel beams at the base of each side of the lighthouse and keeper's residence.

"The reason I put my name on it so big is because of all these people with cameras," Mr. Matyiko says, glancing over his shoulder at a dusty path crowded with onlookers. "The pictures will be around longer than I am. . . . My kids will always be able to say: 'Hey, my dad moved that lighthouse.' "

Americans love their lighthouses, and the Southeast Lighthouse ranks among the best-loved. Its unusual Gothic Revival-style -- a gingerbread cottage with a light tower attached -- and its station at the edge of a gnarled cliff make it one of the most photographed.

"I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who said the lighthouse is the most altruistic of all buildings," says James Hyland, founder and president of the Lighthouse Preservation Society in Rockport, Mass. "It's designed to help people. That's its sole purpose, saving lives."

"It's like mom and apple pie," says Mr. Hyland. "Who can say anything bad about a lighthouse?"

But talk is cheap, whereas maintaining a lighthouse isn't.

It's just as efficient and much cheaper for the Coast Guard, which oversees the nearly 500 working lights in the country, to stick a beacon atop a tower -- but not nearly as pleasing to the eye or the heart.

'Grandpa's light'

Shaped like a pork chop, Block Island is a summer resort about midway between Rhode Island and Long Island. You can fly in or cruise over on your boat, but most people catch the ferry from Point Judith, R.I.

About 800 people live here year-round. As many as 8,000 or 9,000 squeeze in at any one time during the summer, some for the day, some for the season. This is one of those places where people use "cottage" as a verb, as in: "I've cottaged on the island 15 years."

Jean Napier has cottaged on the island 65 years, all her life. Her great-grandfather was the first keeper of the Southeast Lighthouse, her great-uncle the second and her grandfather the third. Their residence at the keeper's house spanned 1875 to 1930.

"Growing up it was always referred to as grandpa's light," Mrs. Napier says. "It wasn't until my son was 5 years old that we broke the news to him that the Coast Guard owned it, and we didn't."

She says the revolving light, encased in a green housing, threw a comforting green beam not only out to sea but also back on land. The islanders called it their night light.

"It was there, just like the sea is there, just like the sky is there, just like the land is there," Mrs. Napier says. "You just accepted it."

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