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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 navigation 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 nine 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 was buried in drifting sands.

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.

On August 7, 1789 President George Washington signed The Lighthouse Act. The Act called for the Establishment and Support of Lighthouses, Beacons, Buoys, and Public Piers. Furthermore, it 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. These lighthouses would be overseen by the Secretary of Treasury. To aid in the funding of these projects, 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 respond 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.