Lighthouses in Virginia

the first lighthouse to be authorized by the US Congress was constructed at Cape Henry in 1792
the first lighthouse to be authorized by the US Congress was constructed at Cape Henry in 1792
the first lighthouse to be authorized by the US Congress was constructed at Cape Henry in 1792
Source: Maryland Center for History and Culture, View of the Lighthouse at Cape Henry Virginia, Looking to the North by Benjamin Latrobe, 1798 (Object ID 1960.108.1.4.7) and Library of Congress, The Old (1792) Cape Henry Lighthouse

The oldest lighthouse in Virginia is at Cape Henry. The General Assembly authorized construction in 1720. The Virginia legislature required support from the colony of Maryland, plus approval from the Board of Trade in London to use royal shipping duties to fund construction. Getting that support for a lighthouse required decades.

British officials endorsed the project in 1758, and Maryland committed to it in 1772. Stone was shipped to the site, but construction stopped at the start of the American Revolution in 1775.

The first US Congress provided funding in 1789, making Cape Henry Lighthouse the first to be authorized by the Federal government. At the time, the US Congress was meeting in Federal Hall in New York City.

The foundation was placed on tall sand dune, with a foundation dug 20 feet deep in the sand. Aquia sandstone, brought from the Public Quarry on Government Island in Stafford County, was used in the foundation. More sandstone from the Aquia Formation, known as "Rappahannock freestone," was brought from quarries near Fredericksburg for the rest of the structure.

The lighthouse was 26 feet in diameter with walls six feet thick at the botton. The eight-sided structure tapered to 16 feet in diameter at the top.

The Cape Henry lighhouse began operations in October, 1792. At the start of the Civil War, Confederates destroyed the lamp and lens at the top. Union shipping relied upon a lightship at Cape Henry until the lighthouse was repaired in 1863. The wooden staircase in the interior was replaced with a cast iron staircase. That change also reduced the risk of fire, since varios accidental spills and dripping of oil carried to the top of the structure since 1792 had soaked into the wood.

two lighthouses at Cape Henry
two lighthouses at Cape Henry
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Cape Henry (1933 or earlier)

After cracks were discovered in the rock walls, a cast-iron lighthouse was built nearby in 1881. The Federal government gave the old lighthouse to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities in 1930, to be conserved as a historic landmark. In 2018, a retaining wall was constructed around the foundation to improve the structure's stability.1

The black and white lighthouse, completed in 1881, is still in use. The lights are fully automated, and the U.S. Coast Guard manages it. Preservation Virginia manages the 1792 lighthouse, and it is open for tours. Visitors access it after passing through a military security gate, because both lighthouses are on the site of Joint Expeditionary Base Fort Story.2

location of active lighthouses in Virginia (2020)
location of active lighthouses in Virginia (2020)
Source: Mid-Atlantic Ocean Data Portal

Nansemond River Light Station
Nansemond River Light Station
Source: National Archives, Nansemond River Light Station, Virginia (1933 or earlier)

Hog Island
Hog Island
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Hog Island (1933 or earlier)

inside the Fresnel lens at Cape Henry lighthouse
inside the Fresnel lens at Cape Henry lighthouse
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Cape Henry (1933 or earlier)

Cape Charles
Cape Charles
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Cape Charles (1933 or earlier)

Cape Charles
Cape Charles
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Cape Charles (1933 or earlier)

Wolf Trap
Wolf Trap
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Wolf Trap (1933 or earlier)

Windmill Point
Windmill Point
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Windmill Point (1933 or earlier)

Thimble Shoal
Thimble Shoal
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Thimble Shoal (1933 or earlier)

Thimble Shoal
Thimble Shoal
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Thimble Shoal (1933 or earlier)

Thimble Shoal
Thimble Shoal
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Thimble Shoal (1933 or earlier)

Thimble Shoal
Thimble Shoal
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Thimble Shoal (1933 or earlier)

Thimble Shoal
Thimble Shoal
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Thimble Shoal (1933 or earlier)

Thimble Shoal
Thimble Shoal
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Thimble Shoal (1933 or earlier)

Thimble Shoal
Thimble Shoal
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Thimble Shoal (1933 or earlier)

Thimble Shoal
Thimble Shoal
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Thimble Shoal (1933 or earlier)

Thimble Shoal
Thimble Shoal
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Thimble Shoal (1933 or earlier)

Stingray Point
Stingray Point
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Stingray Point (1933 or earlier)

Purtan Bay
Purtan Bay
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Purtan Bay (1933 or earlier)

Naval Hospital
Naval Hospital
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Naval Hospital (1933 or earlier)

Newport News
Newport News
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Newport News (1933 or earlier)

Matomkin Point
Matomkin Point
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Matomkin Point (1933 or earlier)

Sandy Shoal
Sandy Shoal
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Sandy Shoal (1933 or earlier)

Lambert Point
Lambert Point
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Lambert Point (1933 or earlier)

Jones Point
Jones Point
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Jones Point (1933 or earlier)

Jordan Point
Jordan Point
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Jordan Point (1933 or earlier)

New Point Comfort
New Point Comfort
Source: National Archives, Virginia - New Point Comfort (1933 or earlier)

New Point Comfort
New Point Comfort
Source: National Archives, Virginia - New Point Comfort (1933 or earlier)

Old Point Comfort
Old Point Comfort
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Old Point Comfort (1933 or earlier)

Old Point Comfort
Old Point Comfort
Source: National Archives, Virginia - Old Point Comfort (1933 or earlier)

Barrier Islands

Hampton Roads Shipping Channels and Port Competition

Ports in Virginia

Shipping in Virginia

Links

locations of the former Tangier and Watts lighthouses
locations of the former Tangier and Watts lighthouses
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

References

1. "Cape Henry (Old) Lighthouse," LighthouseFriends, https://www.lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=448; "134-0007 Cape Henry Lighthouse," National Register of Historic Places nomination form, 1969, https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/historic-registers/134-0007/; "America's First Lighthouse - The Story of the Cape Henry Lighthouse," Visit Virginia Beach, https://www.visitvirginiabeach.com/blog/post/americas-first-lighthouse-the-story-of-the-cape-henry-lighthouse/; "What's in a Rock - Rappahannock Freestone," Front Porch - Fredericksburg, December 2020, https://issuu.com/frontporchfredericksburg/docs/fpfdec2020/18 (last checked May 11, 2022)
2. "Cape Henry Lighthouse," Preservation Virginia, https://preservationvirginia.org/historic-sites/cape-henry-lighthouse/; "Cape Henry Lighthouses," National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/came/cape-henry-lighthouses.htm (last checked May 11, 2022)

southern tip of Watts Island with lighthouse in 1866, before last lighthouse collapsed in 1944
southern tip of Watts Island with lighthouse in 1866, before last lighthouse collapsed in 1944
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Historical Map and Chart Collection, Chesapeake Bay, Potomac Entrance Tangier And Pocomoke Sounds. Sheet No. 3 (1866)

Virginia lighthouses in 1848
Virginia lighthouses in 1848
Source: Library of Congress, A chart exhibiting the light houses and light vessels on the coast of the United States of America: from Maine to Virginia inclusive (1848)


From Feet to Space: Transportation in Virginia
Virginia Places