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Cape Henry Lighthouse

History of the Lighthouse

During Colonial times, the capes of Virginia challenged many sea captains. Fog often shrouded the entrance to the Bay. Choppy waters and mobile shoals underlying the entrance made naviation treacherous. As the volume of shipping increased, the need for a lighthouse grew. However, the expense of the construction proved too much for the colonial government of Virginia.

In 1772-1773 the governments of Virginia and Maryland agreed to allocate funds for the building of a lighthouse. Work began at the site of the bay with the delivery of four thousand tons of Aquia sandstone from Brooks Quarry on the Rappahannock River. Immediately problems arose in laying the foundation in the soft sand. As expenses escalated, the Revolutionary War became the focus of colonial funds and the colonies abandoned the lighthouse project. The Aquia stone remained to buried in the sand.

In 1789, the first session of the first congress of the newly formed nation convened. A plea from Jacob Wray, collector of Customs at Hampton awaited the new government. He reported to the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, that the absence of a light on the shores of Cape Henry had claimed 57 vessels because of problems of navigating the treacherous waters.

By August, the House and the Senate sent a bill to President George Washington. The Act for the Establishment and Support of Lighthouses, Beacons, Buoys, and Public Piers called the government to take over operations of state facilities and specifically for the building of a lighthouse on the southern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. To aid in the funding of these projects, the Congress passed an act regulating the collection of duties on ships and vessels as well as on the imported goods they carried.

In 1789, the newly formed government met to define and enact legislation that would benefit the nation. These leaders felt an urgent need to repond to the public demand for safe and navigable waterways. The construction of the Cape Henry Lighthouse involved many of these leaders. By November 1789, the Virginia General Assembly provided conveyance of the land "lying and being in the County of Princess Anne at the place commonly called the head land of Cape Henry" to the new government "for the purpose of building a lighthouse." Alexander Hamilton contracted with John McComb, Jr. of New York on 31 March 1791. McComb had been the designer of the Government House, the planned residence of the President, in New York City.

The contract called for an octagonal structure with three windows in the east and four windows in the west rising 72 feet from the water table to the top of the stone work. The agreement also stipulated the design and construction of a two story house to be a residence for the keeper and for safe storage of the oil to be used for the light. McComb was to furnish all materials for each structure.

Using the Aquia stone remaining from the first attempted construction of the lighthouse, McComb revised his plans for the foundation and went 20 feet below sea level rather than the 13 feet originally specified. The base diameter also increased from 27 feet, 6 inches to 33 feet. McComb laid the eleven-feet-thick exterior wall in the circular design for the first four feet. The remaining 93 feet of the tower to the lantern, laid in Rappahannock freestone, rose forming an octagonal truncated pyramid. The lantern rose 13 feet high from its base to the top of the roof. McComb estimated completion of the project by 1 October 1792.

In early October, 1792, George Washington renewed his interest in the lighthouse and requested a list of applicants for the keeper. After review, Laban Goffigan, probably of Norfolk, became the first keeper to light the fish oil burning lamps of Cape Henry Lighthouse in late October. The new government completed its first federal work project and fulfilled its obligation to the sea travelers of the Virginia coast. The final cost of $17,700 exceeded the first estimate by $2,500.

In 1841 improvements were made to the lantern. A soapstone deck on top of a brick arch replaced the earlier wooden deck. The lantern was glazed with plate glass similar to the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse in Delaware. Each side of the octagon contained twelve 24 by 16 inch panes. Eighteen brass burners fitted with oil heaters and eighteen twenty-inch reflectors on three tiers of circles illuminated the lantern to guide seamen.

During the Civil War, Confederate troops damaged the light so to render the Lighthouse useless for its enemies. However by 1863, Union troops repaired the equipment and used it to navigate the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. In 1867, a cast iron staircase replaced the orginal wooden access and provided fireproofing. An interior liner added additional stability in the structure -- literally building a tower within a tower.

During a routine inspection in 1872 questions arose concerning the stability and safety of the lighthouse. Large cracks in the original masonry had developed in six of the eight faces. The report recommended the lighthouse be closed. Though immediate action did not follow, an appropriation of $75,000 on 10 June 1878 dedicated monies to erect a new lighthouse 350 feet southeast of the old. Jay D. Edwards, last keeper of the old and first to keep the new, lighted the new lantern on 15 December 1881.

Cape Henry Lighthouse continued to be a day marker for navigation. After decommissioning, authorities generally tore down lighthouses. However Cape Henry became a landmark, recognized for its historical significance as well as its architectural. On 29 April 1896, members of Preservation Virginia (formerly the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities) travelled from Richmond to place a tablet on the tower marking the first landing of the English colonists on Virginia's shores.

Preservation Virginia maintained its interest in the lighthouse. By an act of Congress on 18 June 1930 the old tower and 1.77 acres of ground were deeded to Preservation Virginia to preserve the light and make it available to the public.

Within view of Cape Henry Lighthouse is its 1881 replacement. The new Cape Henry Lighthouse is equipped with electrical and mechanical systems which still guides sea traffic safely into the harbor. Further down the coast the Harbor Pilot Control Tower, a modern electronic station further aids the navigational traffic. From this point, officials track ships entering the Norfolk harbor.