Famous Lights

Cape Henry Lighthouse

The information contained in this section is taken verbatim from HISTORICALLY FAMOUS LIGHTHOUSES - CG-232. Although the format has been changed slightly for better reading and display. BJ 'n Cindy

Provision for building a lighthouse at Cape Henry, at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, was included in the first appropriation made for lighthouses by Congress on March 26, 1790. The amount was for $24,076.66. The project had already been undertaken by the State of Virginia and Governor Randolph had written President Washington on December 18, 1789:

"The State, some years ago, placed upon the shore of Cape Henry nearly a sufficient quantity of materials to complete such a lighthouse as was at that time thought convenient, which have been, in the course of time, covered with sand. Measures are being taken to extricate them from this situation."

The Governor offered to sell these materials to the Federal Government and to cede the necessary land for the lighthouse to the United States.

The tower which was constructed under contract for $15,200, was an octagonal sandstone tower, the materials for which had undoubtedly been brought from abroad as ballast. The light, which was first shown in 1792, first consisted of oil lamps burning in turn fish oil, sperm oil, colza oil, lard oil, and finally kerosene after the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859.

In 1857 the lighthouse was provided with a dioptric Fresnel lens. Great difficulty, however, was experienced in distinguishing between lights along the coast in the 1840’s because of the numerous fixed white lights, such as Cape Henry’s. It was not until 1922 that the Cape Henry light’s characteristic was changed to a distinctive group flashing light.

During the Civil War the lantern of Cape Henry lighthouse was destroyed, but it was back in operation by 1863 being protected by a military guard detailed from Fortress Monroe. All the light vessels from Cape Henry southward had either been removed, sunk or destroyed by the Southern forces.

In 1872 the Lighthouse Board recommended the building of a new tower, stating that the old tower was in an unsafe condition and that there was no way of repairing it satisfactorily. "It is in danger of being thrown down by some heavy gale." It was not until 1875 that Congress appropriated $75,000 "for rebuilding and remodeling the lighthouse at Cape Henry."

In 1879 a contract for a new iron lighthouse, consisting of cast-iron plates backed by masonry walls, was entered into and after two more appropriations of $25,000 each in 1880 and 1881, the new tower was completed and the light first shown on December 15, 1881.

The old tower remained standing and became one of the antiquities of the State of Virginia, serving as a monument commemorating the landing of John Smith.

The new structure was 170 feet in height and the lantern was equipped with a first-order lens, the lamp having five concentric wicks. A steam siren fog signal was also established. An incandescent oil-vapor lamp, burning kerosene vapor, replaced the wick lamp in 1912. This increased the intrinsic brilliancy, but decreased the area lit. The candlepower, however, was increased from 6,000 to 22,000. The candlepower has now been increased to 80,000 for the white light, with 16,000-candlepower red sector covering the shoals outside the cape and the middle ground inside the bay. The light is 164 feet above water and visible 19 miles. This station is also equipped with a diaphone fog signal and a radiobeacon. (1)(2)