Old Cape Henry Lighthouse

Virginia Beach, Virginia - 1792 (1792**)

Photo of the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse.

History of the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-05-01.

While a lighthouse at Cape Henry surely would have made the landing of Captain Christopher Newport much easier, a lighthouse wouldn't stand at that point for another 185 years.

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. 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 be 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.

Many colonists shared Spotswood's concerns, and since there was no movement on his lighthouse request, they took matters into their own hands and kept fires on the hill. Large metal baskets were filled with pine knots and set afire. The fire was considered significant enough that a person was assigned to watch over it throughout the night.

In the early days, many lighthouse keepers were threatened or even attacked by "wreckers" or pirates as they stood to gain financially from ships that would founder trying to get into port. With a light to guide them, mariners were able to safely navigate into Chesapeake Bay and continue on to their destination.

Due to the tonnage of cargo in and out of the ports around the area, the light was deemed critical, with that, lookouts were ordered to patrol the area between Lynnhaven Inlet and Cape Henry. Governor Spotswood along with the other governors of several other states organized troops in an attempt to apprehend the pirates.

Prior to the establishment of the signal fires on the hilltops, many vessels would wait out the night at the mouth of the bay rather than attempting to cross into Chesapeake Bay under darkness. While waiting, the vessels found themselves easy prey for pirates.

Edward Teach, better known as "Blackbeard" terrorized and plundered ships up and down the East Coast. Although Blackbeard preferred to hide out around Ocracoke Island due to its proximity to the shipping lanes, he and his flotilla of four ships would frequently initiate a blockade of ports including Charleston, South Carolina and the location at Cape Henry.

Another attempt was made in establishing a lighthouse at Cape Henry around 1750. A suggestion was put forth by Thomas Lee, president of the Virginia Council, to erect a new fort and lighthouse at Cape Henry, however; nothing was done.

Virginia would endeavor again for a lighthouse in 1767 when the state took the lead in drawing up the plans. Six years later, Maryland backed the proposal and moved the project forward. Several thousand tons of stone (some books report 4,000, others report 6,000) were ordered from local quarries and painstakingly transported to Cape Henry.

Getting the stone to the location, due to environmental variables, would quickly use up the funding allocated for the project. A bill to increase the funding passed in the Virginia Legislature in 1775, however; with the onset of the Revolutionary War, any hope for the completion of the lighthouse quickly diminished.

During the midst of the Revolutionary War, a signal system was used at Cape Henry to let mariners know if British ships were in the Bay. When the flag was hoisted, the coast was clear. No flag visible meant the enemy was close. The same thing was utilized at night, just with a light hoisted on a pole. At the culmination of the war, the colonies had no money and the plan for a lighthouse at Cape Henry was officially abandoned in 1782.

In August of 1789, Congress of the newly formed United States of America voted to transfer the colonial lighthouses as well as construction of new lights to the newly formed federal government. The first project, commissioned by President George Washington, was to complete the Cape Henry Lighthouse, and with that, an appropriation of $15,200 was made on March 26, 1790.

John McComb, Jr., a New York architect and stonemason, was awarded the contract. Most of the Aquia stone for the project was already on-site having been delivered in the early 1770s, however; there was a problem. Due to the frequent wind and waves at Cape Henry, most of the stone was buried in sand and would have to be dug out.

By late 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.

The final cost of the project was $17,700, which was over budget by $2,500. President George Washington appointed William Lewis as the first keeper, however, he died shortly after his appointment. Lemuel Cornick took over the keeper duties upon Lewis's death.

The first lighting apparatus used in the tower were spider lamps which had no lenses or reflectors to focus the light. Technological improvements were made over time, and by 1841 Winslow Lewis had supplied a new lantern and lighting apparatus. Installed were 18 brass burners fitted with oil heaters backed by 20-inch reflectors on three tiers of circles.

Over the years, the constantly shifting sands around Cape Henry would be burdensome. The winds would pull sand away from one location and deposit it in others. In one report dated 1798, the keeper reported that the sand had "buried his kitchen to the eaves."

By 1843, after many years of frequent north and northeasterly gales, much of the sand around the foundation was blown away leaving it exposed. Nathaniel F. Williams, collector for the port and district of Baltimore had included the following text in his report:

The light tower, now threatened with destruction, requires an extension of its foundation, from the deep excavation of sand between it, and the first line of wattling, which, in my opinion, can only be permanently and effectively done with stones.

With the onset of the Civil War, Confederate troops seized control of the tower, and destroyed the lamps and lens. By 1863, Union troops had regained control and placed it back into service.

Upgrades were made over the years. A new keeper's dwelling was constructed in 1835. In 1857, to strengthen and add stability to the tower, a new brick lining was installed, which created a "tower within a tower." That same year, the old lamp and reflector system was replaced by a more efficient second-order Fresnel lens. Ten years later, the old oil-soaked wooden staircase was deemed a fire hazard and was subsequently replaced with a new cast-iron staircase.

The lighthouse was inspected in 1871 and numerous large cracks were found which undermined its strength. 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 of 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 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 sent to bidders.

By 1879, it was discovered that the initial appropriation of $75,000 didn't include provisions to purchase the land. An additional appropriation of $25,000 was necessary to continue the work. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1878 had the following entry:

Arrangements for the purchase of additional land were 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.

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 of 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 of 1880, the foundation for the tower and the brick fog signal building had been completed. The job had resumed from winter hiatus 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 lighthouse in the United States to be constructed of cast-iron plates. The new tower featured a 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.

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 new 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 significance of the original Cape Henry Lighthouse (the first lighthouse created by the Federal Government), it was left standing adjacent to the New Cape Henry Lighthouse for use as a day mark.

Members of the Preservation Virginia (previously known as the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities) placed a plaque near the base of the tower on April 29, 1896 commemorating the first landing of the English colonists on Virginia's shores.

The group maintained its ties with the retired lighthouse over the years. An act of Congress on June 18, 1930 deeded the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse and 1.77 acres of land to Preservation Virginia to maintain the lighthouse and make it available to the public.

Another "first" was celebrated at Cape Henry on August 7, 1939 when the federal government dissolved the civilian-controlled United States Lighthouse Service into the United States Coast Guard, which is under military control.

Today, the tower and the grounds are open to public most days. A small fee is charged to climb the tower.


  1. America's Atlantic Coast Lighthouses (6th edition), Jeremy D'Entremont, 2005.
  2. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  3. Lighthouses of Maryland and Virginia, Bob Trapani, Jr., 2006.
  4. Preservation Virginia website.
  5. "Old Cape Henry Lighthouse, a beacon of history," Ray Bahls, The Virginian-Pilot, June 9, 2011.

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.

Access: The tower is owned by Preservation Virginia and the tower and grounds are open to the public. 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 Old Cape Henry Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 90.00'
Focal Plane: Unknown
Active Aid to Navigation: Deactivated (1881)
*Latitude: 36.92500 N
*Longitude: -76.00800 W
See this lighthouse on Google Maps.


* Please note that all GPS coordinates are approximated and are meant to put you in the vicinity of the lighthouse, not for navigation purposes.

** This year denotes a station date. This is the year that a lighthouse was first reported in the vicinity or at that location.

All photographs and information on this site is copyright © 2016 Bryan Penberthy unless otherwise specified. No content may be used without written permission. Any questions or comments, please email me.