Cape Henry Lighthouse...The First Lighthouse Commisioned by The United States Government!
Old and New Cape Henry Lighthouses
The Cape Henry Lighthouse is located on Fort Story, an active military base in Virginia Beach VA. Situated at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, Cape Henry is close to First Landing State Park and the location where the first permanent white settlers landed in America.
While there are older lighthouses in the United States, the original Cape Henry Lighthouse has the distinction of being the first lighthouse commissioned to be built by the newly formed United States of America government.
The first plans to build a lighthouse on Cape Henry were started in 1720 when the Governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood petitioned the House of Burgesses to consider building a lighthouse on Cape Henry in order to help guide ships along the Atlantic Coast. However it wasn’t until 1775 the project would move beyond the planning and talking stage. Then when it looked like the much needed lighthouse would finally be built the Revolutionary War started and once again the plans to build the lighthouse came to a stop. This left almost 6,000 tons of stone that had been moved to Cape Henry for use on the lighthouse project to sit on the sandy shore and eventually get buried under the sand.
After the end of the Revolutionary War one of acts of the first session of the newly formed Congress was to pass an act calling for “Establishment and Support of Light Houses, Beacons, Buoys, and Public Piers”. An important part of this act was the stipulation that a lighthouse would be erected near the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. This bill was signed into law by President George Washington on August 7, 1789 and in November of that year Virginia ceded two acres of land on Cape Henry to the United States Government for the building of that long needed lighthouse.
After over a year of accepting bids and designs for the new lighthouse then Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton selected a New York stone mason and architect John McComb Jr. to construct the Cape Henry Lighthouse. After choosing the tallest sand dune McComb began construction of a 90 foot tall octagon shaped stone lighthouse. The lighthouse was completed in October 1792 at a total cost of $17,700, giving the Cape Henry Lighthouse the distinction of the first lighthouse ever commissioned and built by the United States Government.
With minor modifications and updates the original Cape Henry Lighthouse was a beacon for sailors until 1872 when an inspection discovered cracks in the original stone construction. That led to the decision to build a “new” Cape Henry Lighthouse and after some delays a new black and white, cast iron lighthouse was constructed 350 feet from the original stone lighthouse. The new Cape Henry Lighthouse has the distinction of being the tallest cast iron tower in the United States rising some 163 feet above the sandy dunes of Cape Henry.
Today both lighthouses are still standing strong. The “new” 1881 Cape Henry Lighthouse is still used and is manned by the United States Coast Guard. Because it is operational you cannot tour it but you are allowed to climb the 192 steps to the top of the old Cape Henry Lighthouse and enjoy an awesome view of the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay. The lighthouses are located on an active military base, Fort Story, so you do have to go through a military security check point to get to them and they have somewhat limited hours. However if you are in the Virginia Beach area the historic Cape Henry Lighthouse is a must see for anyone who loves American History.
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