Cape Henry Light

two lighthouses in Virginia

The Cape Henry Lighthouse is a lighthouse in Virginia. It is near Virginia Beach, Virginia. For a long time, it has been important for the large amount of shipping entering the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. The first building was the first lighthouse authorized by the U.S. government. It was built in 1792. The lighthouse was also the first federal construction project under the Constitution. It was expected to cost $15,200 to build. Another $2,500 was needed to finish the lighthouse. A second lighthouse was built in 1881 a short distance away. It was built because people were worried the first building was not stable.

Cape Henry Lighthouse
Cape Henry Lighthouse2.jpg
In 2017
Cape Henry Light is located in Virginia
Cape Henry Light
Cape Henry Light is located in the United States
Cape Henry Light
LocationVirginia Beach, Virginia
Coordinates36°55′32″N 76°0′30″W / 36.92556°N 76.00833°W / 36.92556; -76.00833Coordinates: 36°55′32″N 76°0′30″W / 36.92556°N 76.00833°W / 36.92556; -76.00833
BuiltOld Lighthouse, 1792; New lighthouse, 1881
ArchitectFederal Government
MPSLight Stations of the United States MPS
NRHP reference No.66000910, 02001439
VLR No.134-0007, 134-0079
Significant dates
Added to NRHPOctober 15, 1966, December 2, 2002[2]
Designated NHLApril 15, 1970[3]
Designated VLRSeptember 9, 1969, September 10, 2003[1]


The Cape Henry Lighthouse was the first work of the new U.S. Federal government. It was built of stone by John McComb, Jr.. The building was finished in October, 1792. McComb was one of the architects that helped build New York City Hall. He also designed other lighthouses. The lighthouse's design was based on the 1767 Cape Henlopen Light.[4] The lighthouse was damaged by Confederate forces during the American Civil War. It was repaired by Union forces in 1863. Union forces needed the light for navigation.[5] In the 1870s, people worried about the condition and safety of the old lighthouse at Cape Henry. Because of this, the New Cape Henry Lighthouse was built in 1881. The new lighthouse is 350 feet (110 m) southeast of the old lighthouse.[6] The old tower was not destroyed. It is still standing. The old lighthouse is still a daymark used for triangulation. The lighthouse was fully automated in 1983.[7][8]


The newer light station and the old lighthouse at Cape Henry

In 1798, Benjamin Latrobe visited Cape Henry Lighthouse and described it as "an octangular truncated pyramid of eight sides, rising 90 feet to the light..."[6] The Old Cape Henry Lighthouse is 26 feet in diameter at its base and 16 feet at its top.[8] It was built with Aquia Creek sandstone. The sandstone came from the same source as the White House.[9]

The new lighthouse is 157 feet (48 m) tall. It was built of cast iron and wrought iron. It also has a more powerful light.[4]


Preservation Virginia took control of the older lighthouse in 1930. Preservation Virginia was known as the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities at the time. A brick lining and an iron stairway have been added to the lighthouse. The lighthouse is open to the public. It was made a National Historic Landmark on January 29, 1964. In 2002 the American Society of Civil Engineers listed the lighthouse a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.[5][8]

Modern photo
U.S. Coast Guard Archive
The second lighthouse

The lighthouses are located in the city of Virginia Beach within the boundaries of Joint Expeditionary Base East, a Navy base. The Cape Henry Memorial is next to the lighthouses.


  1. "Virginia Landmarks Register". Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Retrieved 19 March 2013.
  2. "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23.
  3. "Cape Henry Lighthouse". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Archived from the original on 2007-12-26. Retrieved 2008-06-26.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Wilson, Richard Guy, ed. (2002). The Buildings of Virginia: Tidewater and Piedmont. Oxford University Press. p. 455. ISBN 0-19-515206-9.
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Cape Henry Lighthouse". Preservation Virginia. Archived from the original on 27 September 2011. Retrieved 21 October 2011.
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Cape Henry (Old) Lighthouse". LighthouseFriends.
  7. Catherine E. Dean, "The Old Cape Henry Lighthouse", 2006, APVA Preservation Virginia, ISBN=189146848-0
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Sheely, Horace J. (1963). "Old Cape Henry Lighthouse National Historic Landmark Study Designated January 29, 1964". Maritime Landmarks: Light Stations. National Park Service. Retrieved 21 October 2011.
  9. Preserving Virginia 1889-1989: Centennial Pictorial. Virginia: The Art Band. 1989. p. 10.

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