Los Gatos, California
September 4, 2005
We decided to drive to Virginia Beach to check out the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse. It has a great history.
In April 1607, after 4.5 months crossing the storm swept Atlantic Ocean, 144 weary Englishmen finally made landfall. They anchored their three ships in the protected waters of the bay and sent a small landing party ashore to plant a wooden cross in the sand and name the area Cape Henry, after the French King. About 3 weeks later, having moved on, they established the first permanent English Colony in North America at Jamestown, but this was the site where they first touched shore in the New World.
It’s the same site where, 174 years later, a decisive sea battle known as the Battle of the Capes was fought between the British fleet commanded by Admiral Graves and the French fleet commanded by Admiral Comte de Grasse. The French naval victory kept the British General Cornwallis from receiving the reinforcements he desperately needed to fight General Washington’s Continental Army at Yorktown. It forced Cornwallis to surrender and led to the eventual end of the American Revolutionary War.
Today, this quarter acre of beachfront is commemorated with a granite memorial cross and a statue of Admiral Comte de Grasse.
One of the initial acts of the First Session of the first Congress of the United States of America in 1789 was to create the lighthouse service. President Washington sent a copy of the new act to Governor Beverly Randolph of Virginia, who, along with other Virginia authorities, was eager to start the project. A year later, the contract to build the lighthouse was awarded to John McComb, Jr., of the state of New York, a bricklayer. The construction of the Cape Henry Lighthouse was completed in October 1792. The first keeper of the lighthouse, Laban Goffigan, lighted the fish oil lamps for the first time in late October 1792.
Originally it was built as an octangular truncated pyramid of eight sides rising 90 feet to the light and was located on the highest sand hill at the Cape, 600 or 700 yards from the beach. It held up quite well until an inspection in 1872 found large cracks in the original masonry of six of the eight faces. By 1878, money was appropriated for the building of a new replacement lighthouse, which was completed and lit for the first time on December 15, 1881.
The original Cape Henry Lighthouse is still used today as a day mark and as a basis for coast survey triangulation. It was given to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities on August 1, 1930. They replaced the original wooden interior steps with steel steps and installed ventilators to increase air flow between the original stone exterior and the 1867 brick liner. The original light keeper’s home is now a gift shop. For $2, visitors can climb the original tower. The new tower is closed to the public.
From journal One Good Week Deserves Another