From the Feb. 19, 1971 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

Two significant disintegrations in the colorful contours of the Gay Head cliffs have occurred during the past two months, Clifford A. Kaye, a United States Department of the Interior geologist who has been studying the cliffs for more than 15 years, last week notified the Gay Head board of selectmen. Mr. Kaye urged the selectmen to more firmly curtail the adventuresome visitors who make their way out onto the fragile ridges. But he added that the need for other corrective measures, too, to control the erosion grows more and more pressing.

The areas that have altered most shockingly recently, according to Mr. Kaye, are the red clay ridge and an area below the former Coast Guard station.

“A sizable piece of the red clay ridge has fallen to the beach this past month,” Mr. Kaye has written both the selectmen and the Gazette. He estimates it at 12 to 15 feet. “Undoubtedly, there will be other losses of this kind in the coming years. The rapid loss of material from the end of the ridge, when combined with the erosion of its surface by rainfall and by climbers, points to the demise of this feature in the not too distant future . . .

“A second development is the onset of a large new landslide in the vicinity of the former Coast Guard station near the north end of the cliff. A large crack and newly developing landslide-scarp can now be seen cutting across the site of the former white frame house. Although sliding off the cliff has been going on for decades in this area, the new slide shows evidence of being much larger than its predecessors. It will be more serious from the standpoint of its effect on the beauty of the cliff, for it will sooner or later cause the erosion to the most distant feature of the cliff as seen from Observation Point.”

Mr. Kaye adds that at the present rate of disintegration he doubts that much of the red ridge will remain in another 10 years.

Emphasizing the desperate need, if any of the color of the Island’s only National Landmark is to remain, both for engineering help to control erosion and for human consideration of the delicate nature of the clay cliffs, Mr. Kaye points out that the white ridge — the term he uses for the spot where most visitors stand — has almost entirely disappeared in the past decade because of the trampling of human feet.

Since 1966, visitors have been forbidden to remove clay or fossils from the cliffs, or to descend or ascend them anywhere except along the so-called Bunny Trail where there is no surface clay to be damaged, but virtually no heed has been paid to the signs notifying the public that climbing on the cliffs is forbidden, and it has not been possible to patrol the clifftops night and day.

Since 1967, a study that seeks to halt the erosion caused by rain, springs and waves has been underway. At that time, following outspoken recommendations from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and John A. Volpe, who was then governor, that something be done to preserve the Vineyard’s most glorious natural heritage, a $35,000 government appropriation was made to the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers to look into the matter. So far, however, there has been no reports of its findings.

Meanwhile, another study of the cliffs has been going on since October of 1968, as part of a doctoral thesis being prepared by Jay Long of Weston and Edgartown, who is working on his degree in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Connecticut.

Mr. Long believes that the place to attack erosion is in the swampy low-lying area that lies behind much of the cliff since this is the reservoir for seepage.

There is a five to seven-acre depression, according to Mr. Long, that starts several hundred feet in back of the cliffs, and, in addition, there are many smaller pools of water that collect.

Mr. Long’s solution would be to install a drainage system in these depressions that, he believes, would be neither difficult nor costly to install.

Kent Healy, a Chilmark summer resident who is a professor in the civil engineering department at the University of Connecticut, is the inventor of the prefabricated drain and he estimates that with $10,000 to $15,000 “a good start could be made on draining the water and putting in the underground drains.” He says that a trench 10 to 15 feet long would be required, and that the price of his drain, installed, is $5 to $6 a running foot. He admits that the terrain would be scarred for awhile, but it would be a temporary scarring, as opposed to the foot by foot dissolving now going on of the red, gray, black and white clay surface that has astounded onlookers for centuries.

Alfred Vanderhoop, chairman of the Gay Head board of selectmen, although expressing some reservations as to whether Mr. Long’s solution is the right one, says there is no question but that the time has come when “practically anything” must be tried if it offers any hope for preserving his town’s cliffs.

Compiled by Hilary Wallcox