With the navigational technology available today it is hard to imagine a time when the best chance a sailor had for a safe voyage was dependent on properly placed and functional lighthouses. There are still many operational lighthouses in use around the world but, of course, today seafarers have other options as well. They did not, however, have other options in the 1700's.
It was in March of 1791 that John McComb began his work on the first lighthouse to be authorized by government of the United States of America. The work on the lighthouse, located in Virginia Beach, Virginia, was completed in 1792, at a final cost of $17,700, and was put into operation for the first time in October of that year.
The lighthouse served those traveling by sea well for many years, but it fell into disrepair and rather than repair it, the government decided to build a new lighthouse. The New Cape Henry Lighthouse was built just 350 feet from the first. It went into operation in 1881.
In 1896, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) placed a marker on the lighthouse commemorating the first landing on the shores by a group of settlers in 1607. In 1930, the government deeded the lighthouse and 1.77 acres of land to the APVA.
Today, guests can visit the lighthouse, which is open to the public during the spring, summer and fall. Because the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse is located on Fort Story, a military base, visitors must pass through the security gate. Everyone over the age of 16 must have a valid photo ID.
Visitors can walk up the cast iron spiral staircase to the very top of the lighthouse where they will be rewarded with beautiful views of the ocean. When the lighthouse was damaged in 1953 by Hurricane Barbara, the lantern was replaced and is now made of bronze and copper.
Just next to the lighthouse is the spot where Captain Henry placed a cross in 1607 to thank God for the safe journey across the ocean to this new land. Today, a memorial marks that spot.
Some visitors found the trek up the lighthouse steps well worth the effort. One visitor said, "We went there during sunset and the view was beautiful. The waves were so powerful it was breathtaking.''
Even a visitor who was not as impressed with the lighthouse itself found the trip to be rewarding. One visitor from South Carolina said, "The true gem here is the base that lighthouse is situated on. Hundreds of trails run through Fort Story (which is neighboring First Landing State Park). I prefer the base over the park any day. There are a lot less crowds once you get away from the lighthouse, and you can run, bike or hike in peace.''
Keep in mind that children must be at least 42'' tall to be allowed to climb the steps to the top of the lighthouse. Check before planning your visit for current operating schedule and admission fees.
Read about other Virginia Beach tourist attractions:
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- Courtyard by Marriott Virginia Beach Oceanfront Hotel/South - Virginia Beach, VA
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