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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

The Cape Henry Lighthouses

Long before the installation of maritime navigation aids, coastal Virginia was a vast wilderness unadulterated by European exploration—that is, until April 26, 1607, when English settlers of the Virginia Company expedition landed ashore after their five-month voyage across the Atlantic. On April 29, Captain Christopher Newport erected a cross near the landing site and christened the headlands ‘Cape Henry’ after Henry, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of King James I. The colonization party moved further inland the following day, eventually establishing Jamestown—the first permanent English settlement in the New World. This momentous "First Landing" is commemorated today by a beachfront granite cross and associated state park.

The Chesapeake Bay became a bustling shipping corridor as commercial interests flourished across the Mid-Atlantic colonies; however, its poorly illuminated shores brought about several dozen shipwrecks, resulting in countless casualties and material losses. In 1720, Governor Alexander Spotswood petitioned the Virginia General Assembly to install a lighthouse on Cape Henry’s coast. The Assembly conditionally approved the proposal, provided the Province of Maryland contribute to its construction. Maryland legislators incommodiously refused to acknowledge any financial or material obligations, which pigeonholed the project until 1772. In 1775, after having 4,000 tons of sandstone transported to Cape Henry, construction was once again stymied by the onset of the Revolutionary War.

The Battle of the Capes: September 5, 1781

On August 5, 1781, Rear Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse—commander of French naval forces in the West Indies—set sail for the Chesapeake Bay with 37 ships and 3,200 troops to reinforce Marquis de Lafayette’s Continental Army. British Admiral George Brydges Rodney, who had been tracking de Grasse’s movements around the Caribbean, dispatched Rear Admiral Samuel Hood and his fourteen-ship flotilla to intercept the French fleet. Taking a more direct route than de Grasse, Hood reached the Chesapeake on August 25, finding no enemy ships in sight. Hood then sailed to New York Harbor and joined forces with Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves, who took command of the combined fleet. On August 29, the French armada entered the bay and sailed up the James River, anchoring near Jamestown. Admiral Graves was informed of de Grasse’s arrival two days later and immediately departed for the Virginia coast.

Graves’ fleet sailed into the Chesapeake Bay on September 5 and encountered an anchored French flotilla at the mouth of the James River. The British Navy’s unexpected arrival caught de Grasse completely off guard—many of his crewmen were still ashore unloading supplies as the British maneuvered into battle formation. While the British possessed the initial advantage, Graves abstained from attacking the French in accordance with Royal Navy guidelines; however, the rationale behind this stratagem remains highly disputed amongst modern day scholars as it allowed de Grasse the opportunity to maneuver his 24 available warships into open oceanic waters.

It was alongside Cape Henry’s shores where the combatant navies formed lines of battle. The British approached the French fleet from an angle, which kept their rearguard out of engagement range. Graves attempted to correct his line but issued contradictory directives to Admiral Hood, which resulted in the fragmentary and ineffective arrival of Hood’s ships later in battle.

At 4:15 p.m.—after 6.5 hours of actionless maneuvering—the Battle of the Capes commenced with a vigorous cannonade from the opposing vanguards. Wayward wind conditions rocked tidal waters against British ships, rendering their lower gun ports useless at the risk of flooding. Contrarily, the currents favored the French, allowing for superior firepower against the disadvantaged enemy vessels.

Sunset ended the day’s fighting. The British fleet suffered ninety sailors killed, 246 wounded, and six ships seriously damaged, including the HMS Terrible, which was intentionally scuttled shortly after the battle. The French sustained two damaged ships and 209 total casualties.

Both fleets sailed southeast through the night as their respective commanders assessed the damages sustained during battle. While Graves initially contemplated resuming hostilities at daybreak, the poor condition of his ships made him consider otherwise. Instead, the British stalked the French in tense parallel for the next three days.

On September 9, de Grasse slipped away from Graves’ reconnaissance and returned to the Chesapeake, where he rendezvoused with Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent, Comte de Barras and his French squadron from Rhode Island. Due to the “truly lamentable state” of the British navy, Graves abandoned his pursuit and returned to New York for repairs. The Battle of the Capes maintained French naval supremacy in the Chesapeake Bay, which prevented Lord Cornwallis from receiving reinforcements and nautical support at Yorktown, ultimately leading to his surrender on October 19.

The Cape Henry Lighthouses

On August 7, 1789, President George Washington signed ‘An Act for the Establishment and Support of Lighthouses, Beacons, Buoys, and Public Piers’—more succinctly known as the Lighthouse Act—which united all existing and planned navigational aids under the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment. The act further authorized construction for the Cape Henry Lighthouse, making it the first federally funded public works project in American history. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was named Superintendent of Lighthouses and oversaw all aspects of U.S. lighthouse operations.

In March 1791, 28-year-old New York architect John McComb Jr. was awarded construction rights for the Cape Henry Lighthouse. McComb’s design specifications detailed “a lighthouse of stone, faced with hewn brick, octagon, having three windows in the East [and] four in the West to take advantage of natural light.” The structural foundation was burrowed twenty feet below the water table, measuring 26 feet in diameter and lined with six-foot-thick walls. At the top, the mirador narrows to a sixteen-foot diameter with three-foot-thick walls. The Cape Henry Lighthouse was completed in October 1792 for a total cost of $17,700. Commended by John Jay as an “industrious young Mechanic,” McComb would later design several other noteworthy buildings including Hamilton Grange (1802), New York City Hall (1803), and Castle Clinton (1808) in Manhattan’s Battery Park.

William Lewis—a Virginia naval officer and veteran of the Revolutionary War—was selected by President Washington to be Cape Henry’s first lighthouse keeper. Tragically, Lewis died not nearly one month into his appointment and was replaced by Lemuel Cornick, the lighthouse’s overseer of construction. In May 1793, Cornick abruptly resigned from the position. Laban Goffigan became the beacon’s third keeper within its first full year of operation.

The Cape Henry Lighthouse has been extinguished twice over the course of its illustrious history. During the War of 1812, its lamps went dark to encumber British ships blockading of the Chesapeake Bay. British marines stormed Cape Henry’s beaches in February 1813 and occupied the navigation tower for several months. On July 14, 1813, Captain Richard Lawson and the Princess Anne Militia attacked British encampments at Cape Henry, capturing twenty prisoners and reestablishing American control of the lighthouse. The light was doused again in April 1861 when Confederate saboteurs destroyed its lantern components. Union lightships illuminated the coast until the beacon was repaired in 1863.

On May 10, 1870, Willis Augustus Hodges became Cape Henry’s first African American lighthouse keeper. While his tenure lasted under three months, Hodges’ impact reached far beyond navigational operations. Born to free parents in Princess Anne County, Virginia, Hodges was an ardent abolitionist and supporter of racial equality. A well-versed scholar, he founded his own antislavery newspaper, the Ram’s Horn, through which he befriended like-minded men such as William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown. During the Civil War, Hodges served as a scout for the Union Army and helped runaway slaves escape to New York. After the war, he served on several enfranchisement committees and represented Princess Anne County at the Constitutional Convention of 1867 – 68. Hodges’ activism was undoubtedly influential, not just in Tidewater Virginia, but across the entire South.

In 1867, a cast-iron staircase was installed inside the lighthouse. Consequently, large cracks appeared around its exterior. Presuming structural damage, engineers determined the existing structure was “in danger of being thrown down by some heavy gale” and recommended construction of a new lighthouse in 1872. Congress approved the project in June 1878 and appropriated $75,000 towards its development. Cast-iron girders and panels were manufactured in Philadelphia and assembled 350 feet from the original structure. The new lighthouse was completed in December 1881—at twice the original estimated cost—and is currently the tallest cast-iron lighthouse in the United States, towering 165 feet above ground. Traditionally, old lighthouses were demolished when replaced; however, due to its historical significance, the original tower remained standing.

In 1914, the U.S. government acquired 342 acres around the lighthouses and established Fort Story. Named after former Army Chief of Artillery Major General John Patten Story, the garrison provided coastal defenses for the Chesapeake Bay during both world wars. It remains an active military installation to this day, an affiliate of Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek—Fort Story.

On June 18, 1930, Congress ceded the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (now Preservation Virginia). Thanks to extensive conservation efforts, the ninety-foot-tall structure was restored to its original appearance and designated a National Historic Landmark on January 29, 1964. Today, visitors can climb the tower’s 191 steps and enjoy unparalleled views of the Chesapeake Bay from its observation platform. The 1881 Lighthouse is currently operated by the U.S. Coast Guard and closed to the public.

Entry to Cape Henry Lighthouse is more stringent than most historic sites since it’s located on an active military base. Guests must provide valid forms of ID and pass an initial security checkpoint to gain access to Fort Story. Entrants are then directed to a designated parking lot where a secondary inspection is administered. Once cleared, visitors may board a shuttle to the lighthouse. General admission to climb is $10; however, there is no fee to explore the grounds of Cape Henry Memorial. Just make sure to follow all military guidelines and stay within the designated boundaries or risk detainment!

The sandstone walls of Cape Henry Lighthouse have withstood centuries of weathering and erosion, maintaining a guiding light for seafaring sailors who navigated the Chesapeake Bay’s treacherous shoals. It is a brilliant example of nautical infrastructure that inaugurated a legacy of public works projects in America.

Check out the Willis A. Hodges Story Map to learn more about this important figure in American history

Check out the following resources for more information on Cape Henry's history:

  1. Brown, Jeff L. "A Federal Endeavor: The Old Cape Henry Lighthouse." Civil Engineering Magazine Archive 85, no. 3 (2015): 42-45.

  2. Hatch, Charles E. “The Towers of Cape Henry.” The Keeper's Log. U.S. Lighthouse Society. 1985.

  3. “Historic Light Station Information VIRGINIA.” U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office . U.S. Department of Defense.


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