|Cape Henry Lighthouse
Today, Cape Henry Lighthouse silently guards the entry way into the Chesapeake Bay. Standing near the spot where in 1607 Captain Newport raised a cross to offer thanks for their safe crossing of the Atlantic, the Lighthouse is opened to the public on a seasonal schedule.
The architectural integrity of the tower is representative of one of John McComb's best and most important constructions. The Light also symbolizes the first bold steps the nation's new government took to fulfill its obligations to its people. With the construction of the Cape Henry Lighthouse, the waters of the Chesapeake Bay became navigable and safe ensuring steady trade and commerce on the Virginia and Maryland coasts.
There had been a need for a lighthouse since before the Revolution. The Colony of Virginia and then the state of Virginia could never raise the funds needed to build the structure. 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 for the President, in New York City.
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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.
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.
Over the years repairs and replacements to the lighthouse had to be made. 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.
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.
Today, Preservation Virginia opens the Cape Henry Lighthouse to the public during the spring, summer and fall. Reconstructed after damage caused by Hurricane Barbara in 1953, the lantern is now constructed of bronze and copper. There are eight four by six sash windows on each face.
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.
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