Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-05-03.
Although the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse had marked the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay as early as 1792, by 1871, numerous large cracks had formed in the tower undermining its strength. After an investigation, the Lighthouse Board had concluded that the only effective way to fix the tower was to replace it.
The following text was included in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1872:
237. Cape Henry on south side of main entrance to Chesapeake Bay, Virginia - Under instructions from the Light-House Board, the engineer the district visited this station and made a personal examination of the tower and keeper's dwelling, with the view of determining what repairs or alterations are necessary at the station. The tower is a frustum of an octagonal pyramid, built on a raised foundation of loose stone some 30 feet above the level of the sea. The masonry of the outside is a soft sandstone, with an inside brick cylinder, the latter having been built in 1857, at which time the station was last refitted. Of the eight faces of the tower, six of them show on the outside large cracks or openings, extending from the base upward. Four of them are apparently less dangerous than the other two, and alone would not warrant any great apprehensions of danger, but the latter, viz, those on the north and south faces, where the strength of the masonry is lessened by openings for windows, are very bad, extending from the base almost to the top of the tower. These cracks cannot be seen on the inside, on account of the brick cylinder, (which is of more recent construction than the outside masonry) and doubtless terminate at the air-space between the outer and inner walls. At present the tower is in an unsafe condition, and there is no way of repairing the damage satisfactorily, and a new one must be built. This old tower has done good service, having been built in 1791, and is now the oldest tower on the coast south of Cape Henlopen; but it has seen its best days, and now, from age and perhaps defective workmanship, it is in danger of being thrown down by some heavy gale.
The light is of the second order, and cannot be seen as far at sea as its importance in respect to location demands. It is undoubtedly one of the first lights, in point of importance, on the coast. A new tower should be built at this station without delay, and the light made of the first order. A good site can be had near the present location, on Government land, and materials for building purposes can be landed without difficulty. It also should be noted that the keeper's dwelling is in a dilapidated condition, and at too great a distance from the tower to insure proper attendance. It is a frame building, and is now more than thirty years old. It is too small for the number of keepers at this station, and should be enlarged. At present it affords very poor protection to the keepers from inclemency of the weather in winter. A new dwelling is an absolute necessity for this station.
It is estimated that the cost of a first-order tower, with lens, keeper's dwelling, &c., complete, will be, at this place, $85,000, and an appropriation of $50,000 is asked to commence the work.
On June 20, 1878, Congress appropriated $75,000 for construction of a first-order seacoast lighthouse. The tower was to be constructed of cast-iron rising 150 feet from base to the focal plane. To ensure the stability of the tower, it would be set upon a concrete foundation extending eight feet below the surface of the ground. Shortly thereafter, plans were drawn up and distributed to bidders.
By 1879, it was discovered that the initial appropriation of $75,000 didn't include provisions to purchase a tract of land. An additional appropriation of $25,000 was necessary to continue the work. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1879 had the following entry:
Arrangements for the purchase of additional land were in the meantime being made; but was not until the early part of June that the steps necessary to procure a clear title were concluded. Preparations were then made to begin work, when it was discovered that the act of Congress of June 20, 1878, appropriating $75,000 for rebuilding the light-house at Cape Henry, made no explicit provision for the purchase of any land for the purpose. This being the decision of the law officers of the Department, it was necessary to delay further operations until authority could be from Congress for the purchase of additional land for the site of the light-house. This authority was given by the act of June 16, 1880, appropriating an additional sum of $25,000 for continuing the construction of the light-house.
Six additional acres of land were purchased on June 10, 1880 for $3,185.80. Prior to the start of construction, a pier was necessary to safely land the materials at the location. A.A. McCullough of Norfolk, Virginia was contracted to provide the pier which was completed in August 1880. Soon thereafter, the materials including 600 barrels of imperial Portland cement, hoisting engines, and brick for the fog signal building had arrived.
By November 1880, the granite foundation for the tower and the brick fog signal building had been completed. Additional funds were necessary to complete the station, and an additional appropriation of $25,000 was made on March 3, 1881.
The project had resumed on May 30, 1881 and by mid-June most of the prep work, which included erecting the derricks and preparing the hoisting engines was completed. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1882 had the following entry:
...The first section was commenced on July 8, and on September 8 the sixth or last course was in position. The iron work of the service and watch rooms was all completed on the 15th. The roof was finished, the floor of the watch-room laid, and the placing of the water-shed around the tower completed by the beginning of October. The work of setting the inside portions of the tower, consisting of the lining, stair-landing, and brackets, was completed on November 15, and the lantern panes were then set and the lens erected. On November 27 the illuminating apparatus was tested by lighting and found to work admirably. The painting and finishing work of the tower, which had been meanwhile carried on, was completed on December 14, and on the following day the light-house was turned over to the light-keeper. At night the new tower was lighted for the first time for the benefit of commerce, thus fulfilling the hope expressed in the last annual report. The old tower remains as a day-mark, and is also used as a basis for coast survey triangulation. For supplying water for the boilers of the fog-signals, a brick cistern, with a capacity of from 3,000 to 3,500 gallons, was built during July. The down spouts from the roof of the siren building were so arranged as to convey water to the cistern.
When completed, the 163-foot tower became the tallest cast-iron lighthouse in the United States. The new tower featured a Barbier & Fenestre first-order Fresnel lens which is still in use today. To help differentiate it from the Cape Charles Lighthouse to the north which was painted white, and the Currituck Beach Lighthouse to the south which was left a natural red brick color, it received a unique paint scheme of alternating black and white vertical stripes.
Several other buildings were also constructed at that time. Two dwellings were constructed, both one-and-a-half story cross-gabled frame dwelling, which served as the principal and assistant keeper's dwellings. Two storage buildings were also constructed at that time.
Keeper Jay Edwards, the last keeper of the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse became the first keeper of the New Cape Henry Lighthouse. He lit the tower, standing 350 feet to the southeast of the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse, on the night of December 15, 1881.
Typically, when a lighthouse had outlived its usefulness, it was torn down. However, given the historical value of the original Cape Henry Lighthouse, which was the first lighthouse erected by the Federal Government, it was left standing adjacent to the New Cape Henry Lighthouse for use as a day mark.
In June of 1886, both the principal and assistant keeper's dwellings were overhauled and repaired. That same year, repairs were conducted on both the boiler and engines of the fog signal equipment.
In July of 1887, a system of magneto-electric call bells was installed. The bell system connected the tower and fog signal building with the keeper's dwelling to allow coded signals to be sent conveniently allowing the keepers to send messages to one another.
Another change would be made to the new Cape Henry Lighthouse in 1888. On April 15 of that year, a red sector was installed at 79° to cover the shoals outside of Cape Charles and the Middle Ground inside the entrance to Chesapeake Bay.
In 1892, a new brick oil house and summer kitchen were built. The following entry was in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year:
407. Cape Henry, entrance to Chesapeake Bay, Virginia - In November a brick oil-house was built, 15 feet 6 inches by 13 feet 6 inches in plan, with space for five hundred 5-gallon oil cans. A new summer kitchen was erected. Repairs of a general character were made.
Several other changes were made in 1897. By the mind-1890s, the keeper had reported that the oil shed was nearly buried by sand, so a retaining wall was erected in 1897 to afford it some protection. The Annual Reports of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following entry:
490. Cape Henry, entrance to Chesapeake Bay, Virginia - The dwellings for the keepers were put in complete order. Sheet piling and a brick wall were built around the oil house as a protection from sand drifts. A new summer kitchen and a new storehouse were built, and 556 running feet of new plank walk were laid, and a fusible plug was furnished for the fog signal boiler.
Changes and improvements continued into the 1900s. In 1903, a wire fence with four gates enclosed the station. Major enhancements were made to the fog signal equipment in 1905. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following detailed entry:
573. Cape Henry, entrance to Chesapeake Bay, Virginia - A wooden structure, with tin roof, was built to serve as a coal, etc., house. About 650 running feet of plank walk were laid, running between the various buildings of the light-station. In order increase the efficiency of the fog-signal a compressor plant was installed, consisting of a compound high-pressure intercooler air compressor, four steel air receivers, and a horizontal tubular boiler. This arrangement is to furnish compressed air at 60 pounds pressure to actuate the siren, and also to store sufficient air at about 450 pounds pressure to operate the siren, while getting up steam in the boiler. The siren can then be started instantly upon the appearance of fog and operated continuously while the fog lasts. One of the old boilers is to be used to operate the siren by steam as a reserve against accident. To house the new machinery a wooden building was erected, forming an addition to the fog-siren house. It is built of wood, on a concrete foundation, and has a tin roof. The compressor, the air tanks, and the boiler were set on solid concrete bases. The new apparatus is not quite ready for operation. Various repairs were made.
In 1910, the wick lamps were removed in favor of the more efficient incandescent oil-vapor lamps which increased the brilliancy, but decreased the area lit. The new lamps brought the candlepower from 6,000 up to 22,000-candlepower.
By 1922, the tower was powered by electricity. At this time, the fixed white light with red sector was changed to a distinctive flash group.
The fog signal system was upgraded from coal to compressed air around 1910 powered by 15-horsepower De La Verge oil engines. It utilized a cylindrical siren diaphone and provided a two-second blast every 18 seconds. It was later replaced by an electronic diaphone system, and then by a radio fog signal in 1923.
Experimentation with fog signals continued to take place. In May of 1929, the world's first synchronized radiobeacon and electric oscillator air fog signal were placed into operation at Cape Henry. This system sent out a specific signal over the 1,000-meter wavelength which would then be picked up by vessels equipped with radio direction finders. The vessel could then determine its position by intersecting the signals from several radiobeacons along the coast.
A new fog signal testing laboratory was established at Cape Henry on June 20, 1935 at a cost of $34,915. The mission of the laboratory was to conduct scientific experiments into fog signal research for the benefit of the entire Lighthouse Service. Some research conducted at Cape Henry included radio, radar, and even electricity generated by wind. In 1996, a Differential Global Positioning System (GPS) was installed at the station.
The New Cape Henry Lighthouse was automated in 1984 relieving the last keeper. The United States Coast Guard maintains the lighthouse as an active aid to navigation. When asked about the "prohibitive costs of maintaining the historical integrity of the structure," the commander of the 5th Coast Guard District defended the structure:
"You...recommended that we excess the structure and...build a skeleton tower for the required optic...as the program manager, it is my decision to retain this lighthouse as one of the major landfall aids for the Chesapeake Bay entrance. A skeleton tower would not present the same visual daymark as the current 165-foot tower."
Directions: From Virginia Beach, follow US-60 (Atlantic Ave.) north. At the point where US-60 continues north, follow Atlantic Ave. This will lead you to the entrance to Fort Story. Follow Atlantic Ave. while on the base. The lighthouse will be on the left-hand side.
Accesss: The tower is owned by the U.S. Coast Guard. Grounds and tower are closed. This lighthouse sits on active military post. When I was there, it was pre 9/11. Visitor "Bill" provided a post 9/11 access report: We were able to get in the east gate to the Fort Story Military Reservation. We could only go as far as the 2 lighthouses and the Memorial. We had to consent to a search of the car inside (including engine compartment and trunk). Also a mirror search of the underside of the vehicle was completed.View more New Cape Henry Lighthouse pictures