Several Years ago, living in New Jersey, I decided to “collect” lighthouses. Not the little figures of lighthouses, but rather to visit and photograph them. New Jersey was a good place to start—it has more than 20 lighthouses, light ships, and range lights.
I selected, however, the Cape Henry, Virginia lighthouse for my first article in this series because it has the distinction of being the first publicly funded construction project of the first session of Congress in 1777. It is also associated with the Jamestown articles posted on this site.
The Cape Henry lighthouses (there are two) preside over a point of land that is every bit as historic as Plymouth Rock. In 1607, English settlers landed on Cape Henry before continuing to the site where they would establish Jamestown—the first permanent English settlement in the New World.
Cape Henry is strategically placed at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay, and as such, was the natural site for establishing a navigation beacon. Long before the lighthouses, beacon fires would be built on the dunes for navigational guidance into the bay. It is said that Pirates would capture those in charge of the beacon fires and move the fires south away from Cape Henry in an attempt to lure unsuspecting ships aground.
Nearly 80 years before the American Revolution, the governor of Virginia petitioned Maryland and Great Britain to assist in financing and building a lighthouse on Cape Henry. In 1775, some money and materials were made available for a lighthouse, but the Revolution intervened before construction could begin. Cape Henry would have to wait until after the Revolution to get its long needed beacon.
After the Revolution, President Washington took a personal interest in the project. Funding for the light was authorized during the first session of the new Congress..
Interestingly enough, the lighthouse is made from the same stone from the same quarries that provided limestone for Mt. Vernon, the U.S. Capitol, and the White House.
The old Cape Henry Light still serves as a visual landmark for ships entering Chesapeake Bay.
The stone lighthouse began its vigil in 1791 and served continuously, except for brief outages during the Civil War when Confederate forces damaged the light to render it useless to Federal shipping. Recaptured by Union troops in 1863 the light was repaired and returned to service.
An inspection of the lighthouse in 1872 revealed some cracks in the stone walls, causing concern that the lighthouse tower was not structurally sound. Although it was recommended that the lighthouse be closed, funding for a new lighthouse was not available until 1778 and a new lighthouse was not operational until 1781.
The “new” lighthouse is now operated automatically.
The old Cape Henry Lighthouse continues to stand today, defying warnings of its probable collapse. In 1930, the lighthouse was deeded over to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, and the association maintains the lighthouse today. The old lighthouse was closed briefly following the August 23, 2011 earthquake that rattled much of the mid-Atlantic region. After inspections, structural engineers determined the tower posed no danger to the public, and the 100-step climb was reopened to the public.
View from the top of the old lighthouse showing the new lighthouse and the Chesapeake Bay framed in window.
The top of the lighthouse provides an excellent view of the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, and shipping moving in and out of the bay. It also provides an excellent and unusual view of the new lighthouse that is located about 300 yards away and below. It is not often you get to look down on a lighthouse.
A monument marks the location of the first point of landing for the settlers who eventually established Jamestown.
Not far from the lighthouses are memorials marking the site of the “First Landing” by those English Settlers. There is also beach access, providing yet another view of the lighthouses.
A note about visiting the Cape Henry lights: The lighthouses and the First Landing site are located inside the grounds of Fort Story, an active Navy Expeditionary Base. To visit the lights, you must enter the base at Gate 8 and go through a brief driver identification and vehicle inspection. The inspection takes only a few minutes, and for me, was conducted by very pleasant, courteous, and professional security personnel.
There is a well-stocked gift shop at the base of the old lighthouse, and there is a $8.00 fee to climb the lighthouse, but the view is well worth the fee. For more information:
Old Cape Henry Lighthouse — Preservation Virginia: http://www.apva.org/capehenry/
Old Cape Henry Lighthouse, Lighthousefriends.com: http://www.lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=448