The Lighthouses of Cape Henry

Lighthouses of Cape Henry

        Named for one of the son's of King James I of England, the Cape Henry Lighthouses stand at the southern entrance to Chesapeake Bay.  First proposed in 1720 by Governor Alexander Spotswood, construction began in 1774, but was halted in 1775, when money ran out.  Further delays were caused by the Revolutionary War.

Cape Henry Light as seen off of Virginia Beach
Cape Henry Light as seen from a Whale Watch boat
off the coast of Virginia Beach

        In 1789, the First Congress of the United States, at their first session, enacted a law to establish a lighthouse at Cape Henry.  President George Washington approved the law on August 7, 1789.  The Cape Henry lighthouse was the first federal building authorized by the United States Government under the Constitution. 

Plaque at Cape Henry
(Click to enlarge)

        Chosen to build the lighthouse was John McComb Jr, who completed construction of the 90-foot tall, octagonal, tapered tower in October 1792.  Whale oil, and later kerosene, was burned for illumination, first in an "Iron Lanthorn", then in Argand Lamps with metal reflectors.  The lantern was completely reworked in 1841 at a cost of $4,000 by Winslow Lewis of Boston.  The wooden deck was replaced with a "brick arch on which is laid a soapstone deck and the placement of a new lantern with the same diameter as the old."  The lantern was glazed with plate glass, and was equipped with "18 lamps with brass burners and fitted with oil heaters, and eighteen full twenty one inch reflectors on three tiers of circles."  In 1857, the light was improved with the outfitting of a dioptric Fresnel lens.  It was at this time that the tower was lined with bricks.

Old Cape Henry Light
(Click to enlarge)

        During an inspection of the lighthouse in the early 1870's, large cracks were found in the masonry.   Recommendations were made to build a new lighthouse, but were not heeded until later.  Finally, money was appropriated on June 10, 1878 to start the new tower.

New Cape Henry Light
(Click to enlarge)

         In late 1881, the new tower was completed some 350-feet southeast from the old tower.  On the morning of December 15, 1881, the light in the Old Cape Henry lighthouse was extinguished for the last time.  That evening, keeper Jay D. Edwards lighted the new beacon, a first order Fresnel lens, in the 165-foot high tower.  The United States Coast Guard Light List describes the New Cape Henry Lighthouse as having the "upper and lower half of each face alternately black and white."

        The Cape Henry Lighthouse is one of the thirty two properties owned and maintained by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA).

Some additional views of the New Cape Henry Tower

New Cape Henry Light On the grounds of Fort Story                               
New Cape Henry Lantern A view of the lantern                                            
New Tower from inside Old Tower The new tower from inside the lantern of the old. 

Former Keeper's Quarters Old Cape Henry Light's former Keeper's Quarter's

John and Nicole John, one of the guides, with Nicole                       

John and Nicole John and Nicole at the bottom of the stairs             

Nicole reaching the top Nicole, climbing into the lantern of the old tower     

Bob & Nicole with New Tower in background  Bob and Nicole in the lantern of the old tower         

Nicole in front of new tower Bob in front of the new tower
Nicole and Bob with the new Cape Henry Light

Click to read the History of Cape Henry Lighthouse plaque.

Visit the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA)

Return to the Virginia Lighthouse page