Virginia Beach: History

British Land at Cape Henry

In spring of 1607, Captain John Smith and his band of explorers landed at Cape Henry at the northern tip of what is now Virginia Beach. Around them they saw expanses of white sand, rolling dunes, and pine forests. A few days later, they sailed up the James River to establish the New World's first permanent settlement at Jamestown.

Cape Henry, where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, soon became a pathway for British merchant ships that traversed the treacherous seas to reach America. In 1720, the governor of Virginia requested that a lighthouse be built to increase safety. The kings of England refused until 1774. The Revolutionary War halted construction of the lighthouse, and it was not completed until 1791. A new tower was erected in 1881, but the old one lived on to become Virginia Beach's official symbol in 1962. Cape Henry played a critical role in the Revolution, for it was there the French fleet, led by Admiral Compte De Grasse, stopped the British fleet.

Resort Town Built on Rail Line

Virginia Beach's history as a resort town began in 1880 when a clubhouse was built on the ocean. In 1883, with the help of northern capitalists, a corporation was formed to build a railroad from the busy port of Norfolk to the ocean front. An elaborate hotel that occupied two ocean front blocks, the Princess Anne Hotel, marked the birth of Virginia Beach. The hotel had rail tracks running almost into the lobby for the unloading of steamer trunks. In addition to sunbathing and swimming in the ocean, visitors could soak in salt and freshwater tubs, and enjoy the casino, dance halls, and saltwater pools of nearby Seaside Park.

Two of Hampton Roads' oldest cities, Norfolk and Portsmouth, experienced two centuries of moderate growth following the colonization of the New World, and grew significantly during the twentieth century due to the massive military build-up in support of World War II. Until the 1980s, Norfolk was the most populated city in the region.

Annexation Brings Tremendous Growth

The popularity of Virginia Beach's beach front, which according to the Guinness Book of Records is the largest pleasure beach in the world, extends to the present. Since the building of the boardwalk and the Cavalier Hotel in the late 1920s, the city has experienced tremendous growth both as a resort and as a center of industry for the East Coast. Before World War II, the total combined population of the city and county was fewer than 20,000 people. In 1963, by annexing adjacent Princess Anne County, a small resort community became a city of 125,000 people that had grown from an original 1,600 acres to 172,800 acres. With more land for development, Virginia Beach soon surpassed Norfolk as the region's most populated city. With a growth rate of nearly 50 percent between 1980 and 1990, Virginia Beach became the largest city in Virginia. While this explosive growth rate slowed the following decade, Virginia Beach remains the state's largest city. A diverse economy, downtown development projects, and a burgeoning tourism business make the city "a vibrant city where people live, learn, work and play," according to Mayor Oberndorf in a March 2005 state of the city address.

Historical Information: Princess Anne County-Virginia Beach Historical Society, 2040 Potters Road, Virginia Beach, VA 23454; telephone (804)491-0127; Hampton Roads History Center; telephone (804)727-0800