Even before the colonies had established their independence from Great Britain, plans were in place to establish a light station on Cape Henry. The project began by stockpiling sandstone near the construction site of the tower. However, construction was brought to an immediate halt in 1776 with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.
Construction did not begin again until 1791, when money was set aside by Congress to establish the light station. Constructed of sandstone and wood for the staircase, the ninety-foot tower took a year to complete. The tower was strategically placed atop a sand dune to add height to the tower. The dune also served as protection for the foundation of the lighthouse. The tower's lamps were first lit in October of 1792, thus becoming the first federally built lighthouse in America.".
The architect was 28 year old John McComb Jr., a well known New York City resident/designer, who later went on to design Montauk Point LH (1797) and Eaton's Neck LH (1799), both located on Long Island, NY. The tower has withstood numerous storms and battles, surviving the War of 1812 and the Civil War, when it was darkened by the Confederate Army to prevent the Union army from using the tower in their blockade of the Chesapeake Bay. The tower was relit after the Civil War and continued its active duty until large cracks in several sides of the tower were discovered in 1872.
Once the stability of the existing Cape Henry Lighthouse was questioned, work began almost immediately on the second tower. This new tower, the New Cape Henry Lighthouse, was constructed of cast-iron and stands about four hundred feet to the Southeast of the original tower. It stands at a height of 163 feet, making it much taller and more effective than the original lighthouse.
The lighthouse was fitted with a massive first-order Fresnel lens. Its lamps were first lit on December 15, 1881. Automated in 1984, the lighthouse still conducts nightly duty marking the southern entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. The tower still continues to make use of its original lens, producing a white flash every twenty seconds, casting its beam some 20 miles out to sea.
Even though there were many concerns about the stability of the old tower, the structure proved to be solid. The Old Cape Henry lighthouse is open to the public to climb. Those who climb the tower are treated to a wonderful view of the Cape, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean.
To visit the Cape Henry Lighthouses, take Hwy 60 North from Virginia Beach, follow the signs to Ft. Story. Once you reach the guard post, you must obtain a vehicle pass to enter the military base. Military personnel will most likely search your vehicle before you can obtain a pass (free). Once inside the base, continue the short drive to the north and the lighthouses will be directly in front of you. There is a small gift shop at the old tower, and an admission fee of $4.00 is charged to climb. The new tower is not normally open to climb, except on special ocassions.