Cape Henry Lighthouses

Virginia Beach, Virginia

  • Site Established: 1792
  • Current New Bldg. Erected: 1881
  • Height of New Light Structure: 164 ft.
  • Focal Plane of New Light: 164 ft.
  • Active: Yes
  • Tower Lens: 1st Order
  • Beacon Visibility: 15 Miles
  • Information: 757-422-9421

Historic Significance Score: 5

The Cape Henry Lights combined, it can be argued, are the most historic lighthouses in America. This lighthouse location has seen centuries of significant American history fold out in front of it and has taken part in the majority of it.

The Cape Henry Lighthouses guard the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, and is in close proximity to the spot where Captain Christopher Newport first established landfall in Virginia in 1607.

After a delayed effort by the British and State governments to build a much needed lighthouse on this location, Alexander Hamilton secured funds on behalf of the new Federal Government and George Washington got involved directly with the project. Washington appointed the first keeper, Laban Goffigan, and some reports even had Washington himself discussing the building materials to be used in the light.

Upon the light’s completion in 1789, the Cape Henry Light (see right) had the distinction of being the first lighthouse built by the new Federal Government.

The lighthouse was built by architect John McComb, Jr., generally considered one of the premier architects in the colonial period and known for his designing of New York’s City Hall. McComb also designed the Montauk and Eatons Neck Lighthouses, and to the credit of his skill all three lighthouses are still standing.

In 1896, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) laid a landmark stone near the tower to memorialize Captain Newport’s landing, and by doing this secured the lighthouse as a historic site as well for posterity.

During the very early days of the Civil War, Confederate soldiers ransacked the Cape Henry light tower and severely damaged the lens in hopes of preventing the Union army from using the lighthouse as a navigation aid. The Union reactivate the light soon thereafter, in 1863.

In 1878, because the original tower was considered unsafe, Congress appropriated $75,000 for the construction of the new tower. (see below right)

In 1939 the Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the light, and a few years later the new lighthouse was used a battery commander’s station during the second World War.

Recently, the U.S. Coast Guard conducted fuel cell testing at the light to be considered as a possible source of power for the light. We have come a very long way from whale lard!

The original Cape Henry Light has the distinction of being one of the nine lighthouses to be registered a National Historic Landmark, and rightly so!

Majesty Score: 5

At 164 ft. tall the light has awe-inspiring majesty.

To reinforce the point with a story, originally we entered Fort Story, the fort that houses the lighthouses, on the east entrance and were redirected to the west entrance. After driving a few miles to the other entrance, we were concerned that the military base was so large that we might need some assistance in finding the light. We asked the guard at the west entrance to direct us to the light. He smirked and said, “Drive a minute up the road, you’ll SEE IT!”

Boy, he was right! It was enormous!

Also, this is a case where pictures don’t really give a lighthouse its just due. The size of the new tower is not represented well in pictures. The vertical black and white day marks really make this tower seem thinner than it is. The girth of this tower is very impressive in person.

Water View Score: 3

From the base of the lights you can not see water. But about 1 block pass the light is a place called O’Keefe’s Landing that has a wooden deck way that will lead you over the dunes right to the ocean. The beach view is absolutely great and features huge rock piles in the surf (see below) that probably have a military use associated with them, training or defense.

You can also see the Chesapeake Tunnel Bridge off to your left on a clear day. It is a great view and beach!

Preservation Score: 5

Both lights are pristinely preserved and kept in “tip-top military shape”.

The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities has overseen the landmark for over a century and opens the the landmark during the spring through fall.

The old Cape Henry lighthouse’s interior has been restored in 2002 and work on the foundation followed a year later.

Surrounding Area: 4

The lights sit on Fort Story, a very well maintained army fort of close to 1,500 acres that is used in training for land to sea transportation. (see below right) The coastal setting and landscape make this fort a perfect fit for this task. The fort is actually very nice once inside and we saw several bicyclers taking advantage of the grounds.

One of the most enjoyable things that may be associated with a visit to the Cape Henry Lights is a ride on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel that connects Cape Charles, VA to Cape Henry. The Bridge has been designated one of the “Seven Engineering Wonders of the Modern World” and features a close to 18 mile long bridge that twice turns into a tunnel to allow large freighters to pass into the bay. It is really an incredible structure and features a restaurant and gift shop at the entrance to one of the tunnels where you can stop and really enjoy the Chesapeake Bay.

Finally, we must mention Virginia Beach, VA. Virginia Beach actually makes this scoring flirt with a score of 5. Virginia Beach is an ocean front town that would rival any southern California town in regard to its beauty and activity. There is a boardwalk with Virginia Beach hotels and restaurants right on the ocean that also features a mobile bicycle lane. Families rent a vehicle that looks like a golf cart built for four with peddles and coast the boardwalk that way. Look for the smiling children and sweating fathers and mothers!

You could not ask for a better stop than Virginia Beach on your way down to the Outer Banks, if that is your direction you are coming from.

Accessibility Score: 3

The new tower is not open for climbing. However, the old historic tower is open for climbing at certain times and actually allows great, elevated shots of the newer tower with ocean in the background as you break the height of the dunes.

As a reminder, the lights are on an active military base and our identifications were checked twice, along with a license plate check. It is not automatic access and you might want to check ahead to determine if the accessibility has changed.

Beacon Score: 5

The lens has been removed from the old tower, but the new tower features a beautiful first order Fresnel lens! The eastern side of the new tower has a red sector covering the lens in order to warn seagoers of the dangerous shoals.

It flashes three white flashes within 20 seconds.

Overall Score and Overview: 30

Cape Henry is one of the most enjoyable lighthouse excursions you can have when considering its historical importance and surrounding activities.

A visit to O’Keefe’s Landing, the Chesapeake Bay Tunnel Bridge and Virginia Beach is a must!

Try to stay a few days at Virginia Beach, or at least sample the night life at the ocean front to get the most out of this lighthouse excursion.

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