Old Cape Henry Lighthouse was first included on the National Survey
of Historic Sites and Buildings using the following narrative written
by Horace J. Sheely in 1963:
Cape Henry Lighthouse is the first lighthouse
structure authorized, fully completed, and lighted by the newly organized
Federal Government. It is an octagonal stone structure, faced with hewn
or hammer-dressed stone -- the first of three lighthouses to be built
by John McComb, Jr. The tower was completed in October, 1792, and it was
lighted in that same month.
From early colonial times Chesapeake Bay boasted a substantial volume
of shipping. For decades, however, efforts to gain the benefits of a lighthouse
were unsuccessful. The division of the Bay into two political entities,
Virginia and Maryland, made unified action difficult; the comparative
regularity of the coast off the Virginia Capes made it seem less pressing;
and there was difficulty in getting agreement among so many interested,
and often conflicting parties -- the two houses of the Maryland and Virginia
Assemblies, the British Government, Lord Baltimore, and British merchants
trading to the Chesapeake. The lighthouse was not erected until this complex
situation had been simplified with the establishment of the Federal Government.
Then it became the first whose authorization and complete construction
The oil-burning lamps of the Cape Henry Lighthouse were first lighted
late in October, 1792. From reports and indications noted through the
years, the light at Cape Henry burned with regularity in subsequent years.
The lantern itself, of course, underwent a number of improvements, and
there were some structural improvements as well.
During an inspection in 1872 the stability and safety of the old tower
were first questioned. Since it was considered "one of the firtt
lights in importance along the coast," it was argued that a more
powerful light was needed.The recommendations did not get immediate attention.
Finally, an initial appropriation of $75,000, on June 20, 1878, paved
the way for the start of a new tower and its associated facilities. The
new tower was completed some 350 feet southeast of the old one late in
1881 and lighted in December of that year.
After a new light was placed in operation, the old tower remained a day-mark
and is also used as a basis for coast survey triangulation. It ceases,
however, to be noted otherwise for any lighthouse purpose. It did continue
as a landmark. On April 29, 1896 the Association for the Preservation
of Virginia Antiquities placed on it a tablet marking the first landing
of the English colonists on Virginia's soil. The old tower thus became
a forerunner of the Cape Henry Memorial.
The Cape Henry and Sandy Hook Lighthouses are outstanding in the degree
to which the original tower has been preserved. The sandstone tower of
Cape Henry is essentially unchanged although brick lining and an iron
stairway have been added to the interior.
In 1930 the old tower and 1.77 acres were deeded to the Association for
the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. When last visited in 1962, the
lighthouse appeared rather unkept and obviously lacking in regular care.
Its entrance door was unlocked and permitted visitors to come and go at
will. There was no interpretation offered to the public. Attention is
drawn to it largely through occasional repairs and on special occasions
such as Garden Week in Virginia and Cape Henry Day.
The structure appears to be solid though wind erosion at the base of the
tower threatens serious damage. There was, however, strong local interest
in maintaining the lighthouse, both on the part of the Norfolk Branch
of the APVA and segments of the general public. The City of Norfolk, Virginia
Beach, and Princess Anne County have recently appropriated funds for repairs,
presumably to be done through the APVA.
Charles M. Hatch, Jr., "The Old Cape Henry Light" (unpublished
ms. report, NPS, 1962)
U. S. Coast Guard, Historically Famous Lighthouses (Washington,
In 1975, the following National Register nomination
was completed by Stephen Lissandrello for Old Cape Henry Lighthouse using
the same sources as the previous documentation:
Present and Original Physical Appearance
Cape Henry Lighthouse is an octagonal sandstone structure, faced with
hewn and hammer-dressed stone. The diameter is twenty-six feet at the
lighthouse base and sixteen and one-half feet at its top, seventy-two
feet above the base, where the walls are six feet thick. A small, glass-encased
observation platform caps the tower walls. The lighthouse is situated
on top of a small, steep sand dune, covered with low, dense vegetation. The height of the
dune equals that of the lighthouse.
Statement of Significance
Wind erosion at one time threatened to undermine the lighthouse foundations,
but the necessary repairs were made following the acquisition of the light
house in 1930 by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities
(APVA). Brick lining and an iron stairway have been added to the interior.
Today the lighthouse is open to the public on an unlimited basis by the
APVA; a fine view of the Chesapeake can be enjoyed from its observation
The original land grant by the Virginia Assembly to the Federal Government
in 1789 was for "not more than two acres." Somehow, the lighthouse
was built only partially on the land provided. This situation was finally
rectified in 1881, when additional land was furnished. In 1930 the old
tower and 1.77 acres of surrounding land were transferred to the APVA
Cape Henry Lighthouse was the first structure authorized and completed
by the newly organized Federal Government in 1789. It was the first material
proof of the advantages of a strong national authority.
Cape Henry Lighthouse is an octagonal sandstone structure, faced with
hewn and hammer-dressed stone; it is the third oldest lighthouse in America
, having been completed in 1792.
From early colonial times Chesapeake Bay had boasted a substantial volume
of shipping. For decades, however, efforts at gaining the benefits of
a lighthouse were unsuccessful. The division of the Bay between Virginia
and Maryland made unified action difficult; the comparative regularity
of the Virginia coast made the need for a lighthouse seem less pressing;
and there was difficulty in reaching agreement among all the many interested,
and often conflicting, parties--the Virginia and Maryland Assemblies,
the British Government, Lord Baltimore, and British mercantile interests.
The lighthouse was not erected until the establishment of the Federal
Government. Then it became the first whose authorization and complete
construction were undertaken. The oil-burning lamps of the Cape Henry
Lighthouse were first lit in October 1792. The light at Cape Henry shone
with great dependability for 89 years, until it was replaced by a new
lighthouse some 350 feet southeast of the original one in December of
1881. After the new light was put into operation, the old tower remained
a daymark and a basis for coast survey triangulation. On April 26, 1896
the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities placed a
tablet on it marking the first landing of English colonists on Virginia
soil. The old tower thus became a forerunner of the Cape Henry Memorial.
The greater significance of Cape Henry Lighthouse derives from its position
as the first material proof of the advantages of a Federal Government.
A badly needed lighthouse remained unbuilt for decades due to the squabblings
of State governments and local interests. With the creation of a strong
national authority, construction was begun almost immediately. Cape Henry
Lighthouse is a monument to the benefits of centralized power judiciously