August 7th is National lighthouse day!

VIRGINIA BEACH Va,- August 7th is national lighthouse day and we are celebrating by learning more about the history of the Cape Henry Lighthouses.

  • How old is the lighthouse?
    • The Cape Henry Lighthouse is 226 years old. It was completed in 1792
  • Why as it first built?
    • The need for a lighthouse was known since 1722. During the colonial era, fires were lit on the shore to guide ships through the bay. The Chesapeake Bay was dangerous and prone to many shipwrecks. Construction started on the lighthouse in 1782 with the help of Colonial Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia, the colony of Maryland, and Tobacco Merchants. Construction stopped when the Revolutionary War began.
  • What is the history behind the lighthouse?
    • Post- Revolutionary War, George Washington signed The Lighthouse Act of 1789 in the 9th act of Congress. In this act, the Cape Henry Lighthouse was to be built at the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of Treasure, picked John McCombs Jr. of NY to build the lighthouse, keeper’s quarters, and oil vault. Construction began in March 1791 and was completed in October 1792. George Washington and Alexander Hamilton picked the first three lighthouse keepers of Cape Henry.
    • Lighthouses first used whale oil to light their beacons. Eventually, they would use lard, kerosene, and finally a Fresnel Lens once they were created in France during the 1800s.
    • In 1867, the lighthouse’s cast iron staircase was installed. These are the same steps guests climb today to get to the lantern room.
    • In 1930, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (now known as Preservation Virginia) was deeded the Cape Henry Lighthouse for preservation and to open it to the public.
    • In 1881, the Cape Henry Light Station (New Cape Henry, the black and white tower) was built. Cracks occurred on the old tower and shipwrecks were still occurring in the bay. The lighthouse is still functional and owned and operated by the US Coast Guard. It still has its original 1st order Fresnel Lens from Paris, France. The light shines every 20 seconds and is a 10 second light flashing “U” in Morse Code.
  • Is it still operational?
    • The old, brick tower is no longer functioning. Once New Cape Henry was built the lighthouse keeper turned the light off in the old tower on December 15, 1881 and turned the light on in the new tower the same day. The lens in the old tower was removed December 19, 1881. New Cape Henry is still a functional lighthouse
  • How can people see it?
    • The Cape Henry Lighthouses are located on Fort Story in Virginia Beach. Military and civilians can come onto the base to see the lighthouses. For guests who are civilians, please see our website preservationvirginia.com to read the rules for coming onto the base. Guests are able to climb the tower or take a walking tour to learn about the lighthouses’ history.
  • Why are lighthouses so important?
    • Lighthouses serve as navigational aids to ships and have done so for centuries. During the day, they serve as day markers. All lighthouses are listed on navigational charts for aids. At night, their beacons shine miles across bodies of water to guide ships safety. The area known as Cape Henry is a significant area where having a lighthouse is extremely important. The Chesapeake Bay is a high traffic area for ships. The bay and ocean can be dangerous for ships to sail through with fast moving shoals and shallow areas. Also, fog is prevalent in this area, making it difficult for ships to see where they are going. Finally, we are also at the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay, guiding ships to Norfolk, Yorktown, Newport News, Washington D.C., and Baltimore, to name a few major ports.
  • Are lighthouses still used today?
    • Lighthouses are still used today and their importance is just the same as it has always been. As I mentioned earlier, they are day and night markers on navigational charts. Lighthouses are painted a distinctive color so during the day, ship captains know where they are. When a captain sees the black and white pattern of Cape Henry, he knows he is in the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay. At night, every lighthouse shines a distinctive pattern. New Cape Henry shines “U” in Morse Code. Some lighthouses are assigned letters, some have a pattern based on seconds. Not all ships have GPS or radar, so they rely on the lighthouses to navigate where they are and where they need to go.
  • Fun Facts:
    • The Cape Henry Lighthouse (1792) is the first lighthouse built by the US, it is the 4th oldest lighthouse in the country. The lighthouses older than this one were built during the colonial era.
    • Old Cape Henry Lighthouse has 191 steps to the top!
    • The old tower is only 90 feet tall and is known as a short lighthouse, however, it sits on a 50 foot ancient sand dune
    • New Cape Henry is twice as tall as the old tower
    • This is one of the two places in the country where you can see two lighthouses from two different eras next to one another
    • George Washington appointed our first lighthouse keeper, William Lewis, who was a loyal troop of General Washington during the Revolutionary War
    • New Cape Henry Lighthouse is the tallest prefabricated cast iron lighthouse in the country
    • Head lighthouse keepers would have up to three assistants, one was typically his wife. Their children would also know how to manage the lighthouse
    • Typically, the old tower will be knocked down when a new lighthouse is built. However, the Old Cape Henry was left standing due to its historical significance and connection to the founding fathers
    • There is a bunker from WWII built into the dune of the old tower.