In the midst of a very active Virginia Beach military base stands two lighthouses, 350 feet from each other. It is common when a lighthouse is no longer active it is torn down and replaced, but the stone lighthouse atop the dune is one of the oldest remaining lighthouses in the country.
1. It took a nation to build this lighthouse. This lighthouse was too large of an undertaking for the colonial government of Virginia alone. Once our leaders came together during the first congressional session, they agreed to build the lighthouse. It is the first federally-funded public works project.
2. The octagonal lighthouse is made of two different types of stone – a redder Rappahannock Sandstone and a lighter Aquia Sandstone. The Aquia Quarry was the same that was used in the U.S. Capitol Building and at Mt Vernon.
3. Cape Henry Lighthouse is owned and managed by Preservation Virginia, a private non-profit who advocates for historic places and owns and manages other historic sites, including Bacon’s Castle and The Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation at Historic Jamestown.
4. John McComb Jr., the architect of the Cape Henry Lighthouse, also built the City Hall in New York City, Montauk Lighthouse and Eaton Neck Lighthouse.
5. Cape Henry Lighthouse was originally fueled by whale oil. It was carried up the steps by the lighthouse keeper. Over time, the oil coated the wooden stairs, leaving them blackened, slick and flammable. The original stairs were replaced with cast iron in 1867.
6. The first several Lighthouse Keepers were approved by George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. The first light keeper appointed was William Lewis, however he passed away while en route, making him the first appointed but never to take office.
7. The Cape Henry Lighthouse retains most of its original exterior. The big exception is the lantern room. It is a replica built in 1958 after Hurricane Barbara blew off the top in 1953.
8. In 1861, Confederate sympathizers destroyed the lantern and lens of the Cape Henry Lighthouse to confuse federal ships in the Chesapeake Bay; however by 1863, Union troops repaired the equipment and used it to navigate the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
9. The Cape Henry Lighthouse used a second-order Fresnel Lens. It was removed in 1881 when the New Cape Henry Lighthouse became active. This lens has since disappeared.
10. The exterior steps were not added on to the lighthouse until the early 1900’s, when the wind eroded away the dune. The lighthouse entrance was originally flush with the ground and sometimes, sand would rush into the lighthouse keeper’s house. Preservation Virginia is working to build a retaining wall that will restore the dune and protect the foundation from wind erosion.
Join Cape Henry Lighthouse Saturday, August 8, as they celebrate National Lighthouse Day. Activities start at 10:00 a.m. For more information, please visit their facebook event. The lighthouse is also open for tours, year-round, seven days a week. See preservationvirginia.org for hours.