Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-05-24.
English settlers left Blackwall, England on December 19, 1606 and would make landfall on April 26, 1607 at a site they would call Cape Henry near present-day Virginia Beach. The commander of the squadron of the three ships, Captain Christopher Newport, explored the area, but opted to not settle the location as it could not be adequately defended. Instead, he opted for a location further up the James River that would become known as Jamestown.
As the Chesapeake Bay had the greatest volume of shipping traffic amongst all of the regions in colonial America, Alexander Spotswood, governor of Virginia had recommended a lighthouse at Cape Henry as early as 1720, however; no action was taken by the British government.Although several attempts over the years to establish a lighthouse at Cape Henry failed, the request finally came to fruition in 1773 when Maryland backed Virginia's lighthouse proposal. It would still be another two years before any movement was made, however; with the onset of the Civil War, any hope for its completion quickly diminished.
It would take many years before construction would start. By October 1792, the 90-foot octagonal sandstone lighthouse was completed and ready for service, making it the first lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay and the first lighthouse built by the newly formed United States Government. Also constructed at that time was a two-story residence for the keeper which was also to be used for the storage of oil.
During the War of 1812, Virginia Beach was nothing more than a rural area within Princess Anne County. The area was targeted by British men-of-war which barraged the coastline with cannon balls. Troops eventually came ashore as well. These events earned the location the nickname "Sea Attack," which was shortened to "Sea 'ttack," and then simply to "Seatack."
Although the original Cape Henry Lighthouse had marked the entrance to Chesapeake Bay since 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.
As shipping traffic along the east coast and the Chesapeake Bay continued to increase, so did the number of shipwrecks. Although the Cape Henry lighthouse constructed in 1792 helped, to increase the likelihood of rescuing survivors, the United States Life Saving Service was established in 1847.
That year, Congress appropriated $5,000 for establishing facilities to aid shipwrecked mariners along the east coast. This was the first federally funded life-saving service, prior to that, individual areas had voluntary services such as the Massachusetts Humane Society. Some of the first federally funded stations appeared along the coasts of New York and New Jersey to protect the shipping interests of New York City.
The success of the stations led Congress to appropriate $100,000 in March of 1873 for additional stations between Maine and North Carolina. Virginia received eight stations which were established at Assateague Beach, Cedar Inlet, Hog Island, Cobb Island, Smith Island, Cape Henry, Dam Neck Mills, and False Cape.
The head of the Revenue Marine Bureau, Sumner I. Kimball, appointed a commission in 1876 to understand what locations were in urgent need life-saving stations. The report stated:
The portion of the coast embraced between Capes Henry and Hatteras does not appear to be sufficiently provided with stations. The distance between the stations now located thereon averages ten miles, which is too great to admit of the complete surveillance by the patrol.
As the program was deemed a success, the creation of new stations increased until 1877, however; due to management costs, certain stations were only open during the winter months starting December 1.
On November 24, 1877, just a week before the Nags Head Station was to open, the steamship Huron was stranded in the vicinity, however; as the station wasn't staffed, 98 lives were lost that could have been saved if the station had opened sooner. A similar incident happened near Currituck Beach that resulted in an additional 85 lives being lost on January 29, 1878.
Due to the twin disasters in North Carolina, Congress authorized the establishment of additional life-saving stations by an act dated June 18, 1878. Two days later, Congress appropriated $75,000 for construction of a new first-order seacoast lighthouse at Cape Henry, Virginia to replace the original failing lighthouse. The tower was to be constructed of cast-iron rising 150 feet from base to the focal plane and when completed, the 163-foot tower became the tallest cast-iron lighthouse in the United States.
It was with the appropriation of June 18, 1878 that established the Seatack Station between the Cape Henry and Dam Neck Mills Life Saving Stations. Prior to that, there were no hotels or year round residents in Seatack.
Things would change in 1883 when a rail line was run from Norfolk, Virginia. The following year, the Seatack Beach Resort Hotel was established, which would later be remodeled and renamed the Princess Anne Hotel in 1888. It was at this time that the first few sections of the wooden boardwalk were established. It was these events that started drawing in vacationers from considerable distances.
The surfmen from the Seatack and Cape Henry Life Saving stations were pressed into service on March 27, 1891 when the Norwegian barque Dictator was driven aground near present day 37th Street. The combined crews were able to rescue nine of the 17 passengers amid stormy conditions. The figurehead of the barque washed ashore several days later and was used in a memorial called the "Norwegian Lady" to honor the lives lost.
On June 30, 1900, the U.S. Life Saving Service reorganized and redistricted. The Sixth District, which had covered modern day Virginia Beach became the Seventh District. Other changes came several years later in 1903 when the winter season was expanded to cover August 1 through May 31 inclusive.
To increase their effectiveness, many of the stations along the Atlantic Coast were repaired or replaced. The Seatack Station was one that was replaced at a cost of $7,500. Construction of a new two-story station started on April 2, 1903 and went into service on August 1 of that year.
Three years later, the Town of Virginia Beach was officially established. On January 28, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law an act that combined the U.S. Life Saving Service with the Revenue Cutter Service forming the United States Coast Guard.
The Seatack Life Saving Station was later renamed to the Virginia Beach Life Saving Station and was in use until 1969 when it was decommissioned. The City of Virginia Beach acquired the property in 1979 and later that year, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The city moved the structure about 200 feet to its present location on the oceanfront and had it restored. Today, the building is used as a museum / gift shop and houses a collection of 1,800 artifacts and over 1,000 images of the Life Saving Service, Coast Guard, and Virginia Beach community.
Directions:Take I-264 East toward Oceanfront to Atlantic Avenue. Turn left on Atlantic Avenue. The Old Coast Guard Station is two blocks north on your right -- at the light at 24th Street between Atlantic Avenue and the Boardwalk. Parking is available in the municipal lot at 25th Street and Pacific Avenue.
Access: The Virginia Beach Life Saving Station is owned by the City of Virginia Beach. It is known as the Old Coast Guard Museum and is most days of the week.View more Virginia Beach (Seatack) Life Saving Station pictures