Cape Henry (Second Tower) Light Station

July 2, 2019

Cape Henry Light, Fort Story, near Virginia Beach, Virginia


Location:  Fort Story, Virginia (near Virginia Beach), Chesapeake Bay entrance
Date Built:  Original tower - 1792, current tower - 1881
Type of Structure:  Tower constructed out of cast iron plate on a masonry foundation
Markings / Pattern:  Vertical black and white stripes
Height:  180 feet above mean high water
Characteristics:  Flashing white with red sector
Foghorn:  Yes 
Appropriation:  $150,000
Range:  17 miles
Status:  Standing and Active 

Historical Information:   

  • A provision for building a lighthouse at Cape Henry, at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, was included in the first appropriation made for lighthouses by Congress on March 26, 1790. The amount was for $24,076.66. The project had already been undertaken by the State of Virginia and Governor Randolph had written President Washington on December 18, 1789:
  • "The State, some years ago, placed upon the shore of Cape Henry nearly a sufficient quantity of materials to complete such a lighthouse as was at that time thought convenient, which have been, in the course of time, covered with sand. Measures are being taken to extricate them from this situation."
  • The Governor offered to sell these materials to the Federal Government and to cede the necessary land for the lighthouse to the United States. The tower which was constructed under contract for $15,200, was an octagonal sandstone tower, the materials for which had undoubtedly been brought from abroad as ballast. The light, which was first shown in 1792, first consisted of oil lamps burning in turn fish oil, sperm oil, colza oil, lard oil, and finally kerosene after the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859.  During most of the early 1800s it was outfitted with 18 Argand style lamps, each with a 12 inch reflector.
  • In 1857 the lighthouse was provided with a dioptric Fresnel lens. Great difficulty, however, was experienced in distinguishing between lights along the coast in the 1840’s because of the numerous fixed white lights, such as Cape Henry’s. It was not until 1922 that the Cape Henry light’s characteristic was changed to a distinctive group flashing light.
  • During the Civil War the lantern of Cape Henry lighthouse was destroyed by Confederate raiders, but it was back in operation by 1863 being protected by a military guard detailed from Fortress Monroe. All the light vessels from Cape Henry southward had either been removed, sunk or destroyed by the Southern forces.
  • In 1872 the Lighthouse Board recommended the building of a new tower, stating that the old tower was in an unsafe condition and that there was no way of repairing it satisfactorily. "It is in danger of being thrown down by some heavy gale." It was not until 1875 that Congress appropriated $75,000 "for rebuilding and remodeling the lighthouse at Cape Henry."
  • In 1879 a contract for a new iron lighthouse, consisting of cast-iron plates backed by masonry walls, was entered into and after two more appropriations of $25,000 each in 1880 and 1881, the new tower was completed and the light first shown on December 15, 1881.  The old tower remained standing and became one of the antiquities of the State of Virginia, serving as a monument commemorating the landing of John Smith.  It is now open to the public.
  • The new structure was 170 feet in height and the lantern was equipped with a first-order lens, the lamp having five concentric wicks. A steam siren fog signal was also established. An incandescent oil-vapor lamp, burning kerosene vapor, replaced the wick lamp in 1912. This increased the intrinsic brilliancy, but decreased the area lit. The candlepower, however, was increased from 6,000 to 22,000. The candlepower has now been increased to 80,000 for the white light, with 16,000-candlepower red sector covering the shoals outside the cape and the middle ground inside the bay. The light is 164 feet above water and visible 19 miles. This station is also equipped with a diaphone fog signal and a radio beacon.  The light was fully automated in 1984.

Cape Henry (Second Tower) Light Station's National Register of Historic Places Nomination


1. Name of Property


historic name: Cape Henry (Second Tower) Light Station

other names/site number:


2. Location


street & number: N/A not for publication: N/A

city or town: Fort Story, Virginia Beach vicinity X

state: Virginia code: VA county: Virginia Beach City code: 810

zip code:


3. State/Federal Agency Certification


As the designated authority under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1986, as amended, I hereby certify that this nomination and request for determination of eligibility meets the documentation standards for registering properties in the National Register of Historic Places and meets the procedural and professional requirements set forth in 36 CFR Part 60. In my opinion, the property meets the National Register Criteria. I recommend that this property be considered significant nationally. (___ See continuation sheet for additional comments.)

Captain, U. S. Coast Guard,

Chief, Office of Civil Engineering 2/22/02

Signature of certifying official Date

Department of Transportation, U.S. Coast Guard

State or Federal agency and bureau

In my opinion, the property ____ meets ____ does not meet the National Register criteria. ( ___ See continuation sheet for additional comments.)

____________________________________ _______________

Signature of commenting or other official Date


State or Federal agency and bureau


4. National Park Service Certification


I, hereby certify that this property is:

____ entered in the National Register ______________________

___ See continuation sheet.

____ determined eligible for the ______________________

National Register

___ See continuation sheet.

____ determined not eligible for the ______________________

National Register

____ removed from the National Register ______________________

____ other (explain): _________________

__________________________________ ______________________ _________

Signature of Keeper Date of Action


5. Classification


Ownership of Property (Check as many boxes as apply)

___ private

___ public-local

___ public-State

X public-Federal

Category of Property (Check only one box)

___ building(s)

X district

___ site


___ object

Number of Resources within Property

Contributing Noncontributing

_5___ _____ buildings

_____ _____ sites

5 _____ structures

_____ _____ objects

10 0 Total

Number of contributing resources previously listed in the National Register 0

Name of related multiple property listing: Light Stations of the United States


6. Function or Use


Historic Functions (Enter categories from instructions)

Cat: transportation Sub: water-related

Current Functions (Enter categories from instructions)

Cat: transportation Sub: water-related


7. Description


Architectural Classification (Enter categories from instructions):

No Style

Materials (Enter categories from instructions):

foundation: granite

roof: metal

walls: cast iron with brick lining

other: lantern: metal

Narrative Description 1 (Describe the historic and current condition of the property.)

Description Summary

The second tower for the Cape Henry Light Station was built in 1881. A granite foundation supports a 163-foot-tall tower shaped in the form of a truncated frustrum of an octagon surmounted by a one-story black iron lantern that contains a first-order Fresnel lens. Associated station structures include three modified keeper's dwellings - two are circa 1881 and the other dates to the 1940's; a modified 1881 brick fog signal building; a 1892 brick oil house; a 1905 coal house; a modified 1935 fog signal testing laboratory; and two wooden sheds. The light station is located on Cape Henry on the south side of the Chesapeake Bay entrance. Access to the property is through Fort Story, Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Contributing Structures

Lighthouse Tower (1881)


The foundation is granite and the tower is built of cast-iron plate sections that are bolted together. The first tier of plates is bolted to the granite foundation to secure the tower to the foundation. Metal disks attached to the bottom ends of the bolts and overlaid by granite blocks insure the bolts will not work free. The plates vary in thickness from 1 1/2 inches at the lower sections, each weighing approximately 1,200 pounds, to 1/2-inch-thick plates in the upper sections. The estimated weight of the total ironwork is 1,700,000 pounds including 7,000 pounds of bolts.2 This is a prefabricated tower designed to be taken down and re-erected if needed.3

The body of the tower is divided into three principle parts: the base, or first level, the body of the tower, and the lantern/service/watch room level. The transition from the granite foundation to the first level of the cast iron structure is detailed with a cast iron water table. The first level is defined by bands of classical profile "cornice" trim above the water table and the top of the first level that corresponds to the top of the entry door. Granite steps lead to the entrance, and the doorway and base windows are decorated with cast-iron segmental pediments and elaborate moldings. Over the door, is the date "1879," the year construction began, with a star on each side. The double-door entrance is 10 feet wide and 10 feet high. The first level is painted black with the entry frame and door painted white.

The trim bands on the base and the top portion of the tower define the tower body. Raised rectangular profile bands define each floor level of the tower body. The upper and lower half of each face of the tower is alternately painted in black and white vertical stripes, providing a daymark which is easily distinguished from the nearly all-white Cape Charles tower to the north and the all-red brick tower at Currituck Beach to the south.4 On the north, south, east and west faces, there are windows on every other floor - i.e. on the first level the windows are on the east and west faces, on the second level the windows are on the north and south faces, etc. The top of each window opening is detailed with a decorative entablature and frieze motif, and the bottom of each window opening is detailed with a classical profile bracketed sill.

The top of the tower, lantern/service/watch room area, is differentiated from the tower by another band of cornice style trim and terminates with the lantern roof. All features of the lantern above the body of the tower are painted black. This upper portion is divided into three distinct levels. Th first is the watch room level. Between the cornice trim and the lower gallery deck, this level has four windows - one on every other face aligned with one of the cardinal directions. Second, above the lower gallery deck and below the upper gallery deck, is the service room level. The service room is circular in plan, and the only opening is the access door to the lower gallery deck. The lower gallery deck is made up of eight panels that extend beyond the face of the tower. A railing composed of both vertical and horizontal bars enclose the lower gallery. Access to the upper gallery deck is gained via a ladder from the lower gallery. The upper gallery is circular in plan and provides access to the exterior of the lantern. Last is the lantern itself. The first-order lantern is made of cast and wrought iron with bronze sashes and a copper roof, and there are three staggered rows of glass panes - i.e. the panes in the first and third rows align. The lantern has a red sector from 155 to 233 degrees.


The outer cast-iron plates are lined with sheet iron. Radial cast-iron abutments connect the cast-iron plates and inner stair cylinder of wrought iron. The inner sheet-iron walls are 3/8-inch thick.

The second Cape Henry light tower displays aesthetics not ordinarily found in government-built utilitarian structures. The first level is detailed like a formal entrance foyer. The floor is covered with decorative tile that form an interlocking diamond pattern, and the perimeter is detailed with a band of tiles that form a repeating diamond pattern. Supporting the first landing of the interior staircase are eight cast iron Doric columns, and the ground floor walls have semicircular niches. All interior walls are painted white, and the trim elements are painted red.

All levels of the tower are accessed by a spiral staircase that is attached to the inside walls of the tower. The staircase has 180 steps and six landings supported by decorative cast-iron brackets. There are another 27 steps from the service room to the watch room and, finally, to the lantern room, making a total of 207 steps. The center of the stair is open to allow hoisting of supplies to the top of the tower. The stair and stair rail are painted red.

At the watchroom level, there is a full floor under which is an "I" beam that is fitted with a pulley to carry the cable for the electric hoist. The service room level also has a full floor that supports the lantern. In the lantern portion of the tower, the only flooring is the narrow lantern deck that provides access to the lens and storm panels for cleaning.


The classical first-order Fresnel lens is a non-rotating or fixed barrel-type lens; it continues to function as an active aid to navigation. Stamped on the middle section of the bottom frame of panel # 1 is: 


PARIS - 1880

On the middle section of panel # 8 is:




These two panels are side by side and face landward, having no top or bottom panels. All the panel frames have corresponding numbers in the lower corners of the upper panel frames and letters in the upper corners of the lower panel frames which correspond to the same numbers and letters on the middle panel frames of each section. The upper panel frames also have "BARBER & FENESTRE" stamped on the center of the bottom frame, and the lower panel frames have the same stamped in the center of the middle frames. There is no lettering or numbering on the inside of the frames. Each panel of the central drum consists of 17 elements with 18 prisms in each panel above the central drum and eight prisms in each panel below the central drum, except for panel 1 and 8 as discussed above. The red sector is made by the placement of red Plexiglas panels along the inside of the storm panes.

Oil house (1892)

In 1892, a gable roof, brick oil house with capacity for 500 five-gallon cans was built. Sheet piling and a brick wall were built around the oil house in 1897 to keep sand from piling up on it. A 1911 report states the oil house is a brick 14-foot by 12-foot in plan structure with a capacity to house 700 five-gallon cans located 100 feet "west, southwest" from the tower. Despite the difference in capacity to house oil cans, it is believed these descriptions are of the same structure.

Located approximately 80 feet to the west of the tower and connected by a concrete sidewalk, the long axis of the structure is oriented approximately in a northwest to southeast direction. The only exterior ornament on the structure is the decorative corbelling of the walls under the eaves. On the gable ends of the structure, are vent openings for the oil ventilation system. On the interior of the structure, is the original ventilation system hood; it is unusual for these original fabric members to survive.

Keeper's quarters (c. 1940's)

Located approximately 80 feet to the east of the tower is a 2 1/2-story, 2-bay, brick vernacular, gable roofed dwelling, now known as "Quarters A." The exterior of the building is adorned only with simple details. There is a protruding brick belt course style water table that is approximately 2 feet above grade around the entire perimeter of the building. The eave line is detailed with a classical fascia and soffit boxing with ogee profiled cornice trim. Under the eave, is a decorative vertical brick course that wraps around the gable ends of the structure and terminates under the gable returns. Above each window, is a flat arch made up of bricks laid vertically. The windows have been replaced with vinyl replacement units. The only windows that are not replacements are the semicircular fanlight windows located in each gable of the structure. Centered on the roof, is a two-flue brick chimney. The top three courses of the chimney are all stepped-out approximately one half brick width. The fourth course makes the transition between the body of the chimney and the top three courses by being stepped out only one quarter of a brick width.

There is a one-story shed roofed porch on the south elevation of the structure; three concrete stairs at the east end of the long side of the porch provide access. Above the entrance stairs on the porch's shed roof, is a small gable roof that forms a classical pediment.

Centered on the north elevation, is a small, one story shed roof rear entry porch. There is a four-step stoop that provides access. Also, on the north side, is an enclosed cellar entry.

All exterior surfaces are painted white. All of the roofs are covered with red mineral surface, three tab, and fiberglass reinforced shingles.

This dwelling appears to be a later addition to the site. A photo, circa 1947, is one of the first photographs to show this dwelling.

Keeper's quarters (likely the original Assistant keeper's quarters, c. 1881)

Located approximately 100 feet north of the brick keeper's dwelling, is a circa 1881 1 1/2-story, 3-bay, cross gable frame dwelling , now referred to as "Quarters B". The exterior of the building is clad with asbestos reinforced shingles; originally it was clapboard sided with gable ends covered with decorative board-and-batten and gingerbread that is now either covered and/or removed. The plain fascia and simple trim along the eave of the roof still remains, as does the brick chimney protruding from one of the roofs. The dwelling sits on a brick foundation that rises approximately three feet above the ground giving the dwelling a partially raised basement. Only a portion of the basement is excavated to create a full height space in which the furnace and sump pump are located. The rest of the basement area is only a crawl space that is vented by iron grates set in the masonry foundation wall. The structure was remodeled over the years but has retained its basic shape and lines.

The current configuration has combined a series of intersecting and parallel ridge gable roof conditions. There are two parallel gables that form a low sloping valley over the living space of the structure. Currently, the roofs are covered with red mineral surface, fiberglass reinforced, and three-tab shingles. Originally, the roof was wood shingle.

There are three porches on the structure, one on the south elevation, one on the east elevation and one on the west elevation. The south and east elevation porches are merely stoops accessed by four steps with the doors protected from the weather by small wood frame awning roofs. The porch on the west side of the dwelling covers nearly the full length of the elevation. This porch is wood frame construction that bears on four brick masonry piers. There are wood lattice screens fitted between the masonry piers. Five wooden steps access the deck. Four square wood columns support the shed roof structure. The porch roof is also covered with red, mineral surface, fiberglass reinforced, and three-tab shingles.

Storage building (c. 1881)

Approximately 70 feet north of the first assistant keeper's quarters, is a small board-and-batten gable-roofed storage building now referred to as "Quarters B shed". The structure's long axis runs north to south. There is one door on the south elevation (the keeper's quarters side of the storage building) and double hung 4 over 4 windows on the east and west elevations. The roof is currently covered with a light blue-gray mineral surface, fiberglass reinforced, and three tab shingles. The structure sits on concrete piers. The structure appears to be contemporary with the 1881 construction of the tower; however, photographic evidence seems to indicate that it was moved from elsewhere on the property, and, possibly, it is the structure located on the east side of the dwelling in early photographs.

Keeper's quarters (likely original Principal Keeper's quarters, c. 1881)

Located approximately 100 feet west of "Quarters B", this circa 1881 structure is a 3 bay, 1 1/2 story, cross gable, frame dwelling. Currently clad with asbestos reinforced shingles, this structure originally was clapboard sided with gable ends covered with decorative board-and-batten and gingerbread. The plain fascia and simple trim along the eave of the roof still remains as does the brick chimney protruding from one of the roofs. The dwelling sits on a brick foundation that rises approximately three feet above the ground giving the dwelling a partial basement. There is an exterior entrance to the basement on the west elevation of the structure.

The structure also was remodeled over the years but similar to "Quarters B" retains its basic form and lines. However, unlike "Quarters B" which is a single-family dwelling, "Quarters C" has been divided into two apartments - one on each floor. The original porches have been removed, and two wood frame, two story staircases and decks provide outdoor living space as well as access to the second floor apartment.

The current configuration has combined a series of intersecting and side-by-side gable roof conditions. Unlike "Quarters B" where the two parallel roofs form a valley, a low sloping shed roof that provides more headroom in the second story apartment bridges the two parallel roofs. Currently, the roofs are covered with red, mineral surface, fiberglass reinforced, and three tab shingles.

Storage building (c. 1881)

Adjacent to the above keeper's quarters, is a small frame, "German" sided, gable roof, storage building, now referred to as "Quarters C shed." The long axis of the structure is oriented east to west, parallel to the north elevation of the keeper's quarters. There are two doors on the south elevation, and one window on each elevation. The windows are double hung six over six units. Brick piers support the structure. The structure appears to be contemporary with the 1881 construction of the tower.

Coalhouse (c. 1905)

Adjacent to the "Quarters B shed" is a wooden coalhouse with tin roof constructed circa 1905. The structure is a simple, wood frame, board-and-batten covered gable roof storage building. The long axis of the building is oriented approximately east to west. There are three doors and one window on the south elevation. The structure appears to bear directly on the ground or the footings are very low. It is unlikely that this was the original location of the building as photographic evidence shows a 2-bay, 2-story structure in this location until the l940's. The roof is covered with the same red mineral surface, fiberglass reinforced, and three tab shingles used elsewhere on site.

Fog signal structure (1881)

This 1881 structure was originally built as a fog signal building, later converted to a garage, and now used as a work shop/storehouse. Lighthouse Board annual reports and photographs of the station reveal that this building was a 1 1/2-story brick structure with a 25-foot-square room for the engines and sirens, with a 25-foot by 9-foot, 6-inches in plan attached shed, possibly board-and-batten sided, with a galvanized corrugated sheet metal roof. A two-story wooden tower addition sided with horizontal clapboards, set on a concrete foundation, and covered with a tin roof was added to the shed in 1905. Surmounted from the tower was a large trumpet. While the number and arrangement of horns no doubt changed over time, once a complicated three sets of three horns each and two smaller sets of horns as well as two single horns were staged in front of the fog signal building. A 3,000- to 3,500-gallon brick cistern was built next to the fog signal building to supply water for the steam fog signal. About 1909, the fog signal building was modified into an oil-fired compressed air fog signal plant. A 1911, report states the fog signal building was a "one-story brick building with iron truss roof and corrugated iron cover." At a later time, this was crossed out and described as "one story concrete building with pent house tank room, & steel tower above." This is probably referring to the 1935 testing laboratory.5

Today only the brick structure remains. The southeast elevation features an overhead style garage door and the southwest a single wood raised panel door. All other fenestration has been covered with plywood. The exterior of the structure is relatively unadorned with the exception of the recessed panels that frame the fenestration. The roof is supported by a steel truss system and is covered with red mineral, reinforced, and three-tab shingles.

Fog signal testing laboratory (1935)

After the light tower, the most prominent structure on site is the circa 1935 fog signal test laboratory located on the northeast corner of the site. The facility is a simple one-story, flat roof, concrete structure. Rising from the roof, is an approximately 50 foot high, concrete and steel observation tower. The upper observation room portion of the tower is a modern addition. The historic concrete tower is still visible between the modern addition and the main part of the test building. The Maryland and Virginia Bay Pilot's Association use the observation tower as an observation and communication point when interacting with ships entering the Chesapeake Bay. The rest of the structure remains virtually unaltered. The exterior elevations are detailed with Art Deco echelon pilasters and metal casement and hopper style windows. Period hardware and other features are extant on the interior of the structure. The structure is currently used for offices and storage space as well as houses the back-up generator that provides emergency power for the light station.

Previously Existing Structures

Several other support structures are known to have existed at the Cape Henry (New) lightstation. In 1892, a new summer kitchen was constructed, and in 1897, a new summer kitchen and new storehouse was built, as was 556 feet of new plank walks. A 1911, report describes two storehouses and three summer kitchens in existence. The world's first synchronized radiobeacon consisting of a tall tower with several radial tie downs located to the northwest of the tower was put into commission in 1929. An undated War Department plat and photographs show a Department of Agriculture dwelling and garage behind Quarters "B" and "C" and just outside of the light station fence. In addition, another keeper's dwelling is shown both on the plat and in photographs. This modified A-frame cottage with large front porch and a storage building to the rear (west) was located directly west of "Quarters B" and to the northwest of the tower. This dwelling was likely removed around the time the brick keeper's quarters was constructed.


The Virginia State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) has previously determined this station eligible for listing.6 The tower retains its original first-order lens. Other than a modern partition wall with modern electrical components in the watch room, it retains over 85 to 90 percent of its original fabric. The oil house is rare in that it retains its original oil fume ceiling hood. The original fog signal building, now used as a garage, is one of only a few pre-turn-of-the-century fog signal structures extant on the East Coast. The remaining station structures have been modified over the years but still maintain overall integrity of site. Taken as a whole, however, the ancillary buildings represent a light station complex that is largely intact. Few stations, especially on the East Coast, possess such a variety of structures or give such a complete picture of a large light station.


8. Statement of Significance


Applicable National Register Criteria (Mark "x" in one or more boxes for the criteria qualifying the property for National Register listing)

X A Property is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.

____ B Property is associated with the lives of persons significant in our past.

X C Property embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction or represents the work of a master, or possesses high artistic values, or represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components lack individual distinction.

____ D Property has yielded, or is likely to yield information important in prehistory or history.

Criteria Considerations (Mark "X" in all the boxes that apply.)

____ A owned by a religious institution or used for religious purposes.

____ B removed from its original location.

____ C a birthplace or a grave.

____ D a cemetery.

____ E a reconstructed building, object, or structure.

____ F a commemorative property.

____ G less than 50 years of age or achieved significance within the past 50 years.

Areas of Significance (Enter categories from instructions):

Maritime History



Period of Significance: 1881-1956

Significant Dates: 1881, 1929, 1946-1956

Significant Person (Complete if Criterion B is marked above): N/A

Cultural Affiliation: N/A

Known Design Source: none

Architect/Builder: U.S. Lighthouse Board

Narrative Statement of Significance (Explain the significance of the property.)

The Atlantic Coast and Chesapeake Bay served as a major transportation corridor for commercial traffic from the early 18th through 20th centuries. Cape Henry Lighthouse marks the south side of the entrance to Chesapeake Bay and is considered one of the most important lighthouses on the Atlantic coast. The Lighthouse is the earliest cast-iron-cylinder light tower in the state of Virginia; at 163 feet, it is the tallest cast-iron-plate light tower in the United States. The world's first synchronized radiobeacon and electric oscillator air fog signal was put into commission at Cape Henry Lighthouse in May of 1929.


The construction of the first Cape Henry tower (1792), a National Historic Landmark, was the first public works project completed by the new federal government. In 1872, cracks extending from the base to nearly the top of the tower on the north and south walls were first reported by inspectors, though only eight years earlier the tower was reported "in excellent order." The Lighthouse Board, fearing the structure would collapse, recommended a new and more substantial lighthouse be built of the first order since it was considered "one of the first lights of importance along the coast." It was also noted that the 30-year-old frame keeper's dwelling was in a "dilapidated condition," too small for the number of keepers stationed there, and too far from the tower to insure "proper attendance." An estimated cost for the new tower and quarters was $85,000 with a request to Congress for $50,000 to commence work. This request was renewed in 1873 and 1874. In 1875, the request was raised to $75,000 and renewed again in 1876. Congress finally appropriated this amount on June 20, 1878. In 1878, the Board requested an additional $25,000 which was renewed in 1879 and, finally, appropriated on June 16, 1880. A second request for still another $25,000 was appropriated on March 3, 1881, to complete the lighthouse station. Of these two additional appropriations, $48,063.52 was spent in 1882.

It could be argued, but not proved, that the cracks were only an excuse to build a taller first-order lighthouse for this important Cape. In the same year, it was determined that additional property was needed for the desired placement of the new tower and six acres were purchased on June 10, 1880, for $3,185.80, possibly from Allen A. and Marion McCullough of Norfolk.7

Construction began before there was a legal deed to the said property. Construction was stalled when it was discovered that the act of Congress of June 20, 1878, included no legal authority to purchase the additional property. An act of Congress on June 16, 1880, rectified this issue, but the title is further confused by an abstract of title search that noted that the said tract was sold by the state of Virginia in 1869 and had "remained" a part of public domain known as "waste and unappropriated lands." Furthermore, the fishery rights Virginia retained when it sold land to the Federal Government for the first tower were excluded from this 1880 deed. Regardless of the legality of the deed, the new tower located approximately 350 feet southeast of the old tower was completed in 1881.8

The metal work was awarded to Morris, Tasker & Company of Philadelphia on September 10, 1880, though the light-well grates around the lantern room catwalk are embossed "STEWART & STEVENS 130 North 6th ST. PHILA. PA." A. A. McCullough of Norfolk, Virginia, was given a contract to erect a pier for the landing of materials that they completed by August 1881. A steam-operated concrete mixer had been constructed and transported to Norfolk, apparatus for the fog signal purchased, and contract for the brick fog signal-building let. Delay in construction resulted from the inability of the contractor to fulfill their commitment for the ironwork as scheduled. On July 20, 1881, the erection of "necessary quarters for workmen, cement-shed, kitchen, store-room, etc., was commenced." The first shipment of cargo, consisting of 165 tons of cast iron was off loaded from a ship onto the temporary pier. As the tram crossed over the bridge leading to the pier, it collapsed. Upon inspection it was found "boring-worm(s)" had weakened the piles, and they were unsafe. The ironwork was taken by schooner back to Norfolk, and the pier collapsed the next day. It was decided to abandon the wharf and instead run the tramway to Lynnhaven Inlet, four miles away, and land construction materials there by scow.

The lighthouse tower foundation was made of seven parts cut granite, three parts very coarse sand and gravel, and one part imperial German Portland cement. The one-story brick fog signal building was completed before work stopped for the winter.9 The following spring, the tramway was completed and the 11-foot-deep foundation finished. A 3,000- to 3,500-gallon-capacity brick cistern connected by down spouts from the roof of the fog signal building was completed to supply water for the boilers of the fog signal. The cast-iron plate sections were "neatly fitted and correctly marked" and "soon" assembled. All the plates were in place on September 15, 1881. The interior lining, stair landings, and brackets were completed on November 15. The lens was tested, and the lighthouse was turned over to the keeper on December 15, 1881. Reaching a height of 163 feet, the new Cape Henry tower is the tallest cast-iron-plate lighthouse in the United States.10

Cape Henry Lighthouse was installed with a first-order Fresnel lens. A description of these lenses states:

"Nothing can be more beautiful than an entire apparatus for fixed light of the first order. It consists of a central belt of reflectors forming a hollow cylinder six feet in diameter and 30 inches high; below it...six triangular rings of glass, arranged in a cylindrical form, and above a crown of 13 rings of glass, forming by their union a hollow cage composed of polished glass, 10 feet high and 6 six feet in diameter. I know of no work of art more beautifully credible to the boldness, ardor, intelligence and zeal of the artist."11

A first class Argand burner fitted with five concentric wicks fueled with kerosene lit the lens. The outer wick was five inches in diameter, and the lens had a light source five-inches-wide and four-inches-high. The lens and illuminating apparatus gave a fixed white light of 6,000 candlepower. There was also a red sector to mark certain shoals. The station was also fitted with a "first-class steam-siren" or "steam fog-signal," manufactured by A. & F. Brown of New York, which was coal fired, all of which was delivered by small boats and then carried in bags on the backs of the men through the surf. The signal gave blasts of five seconds duration separated by silent intervals of 90 seconds. A 3,500-gallon water cistern and a "sand pump or drive well" for emergency use were included in the contract. The cost to complete the new station came within the $125,000 allocated ($75,000 in the first installment and $25,000 each of the two additional installments) plus the cost of new additional property.12

In 1883, final details such as painting and laying the tile floor in the tower were completed. An electric "call-bell apparatus" was installed in the dwelling and connected with the tower in 1883, but in 1887, a new "magneto-call-bell" was installed. This new system afforded a code of signals "specially devised for the purpose" so communication between the keepers was possible. "Extensive repairs" were made to the lantern roof in 1883. The "principal and assistant keeper's dwellings were thoroughly overhauled." In 1892, a brick oil house with capacity for 500 five-gallon cans was built, as was a new summer kitchen. In 1893, the station consumed 2,248 gallons of mineral oil, and the fog signal operated for 256 hours and consumed 13 tons of coal. By April 1894, the oil house was considered "useless" because of shifting sand, and by November, it was reported to be buried under five feet of sand. It was supposedly located on the north side of the tower. In 1897, the dwellings "were put in complete order," sheet piling and a brick wall built around the oil house to keep sand from piling up on it, a new summer kitchen and new storehouse was built, as was 556 feet of new plank walks. In 1899, an audibility test of the fog signal was conducted.

In 1901, the first-class steam-operated fog siren operated for 299 hours and consumed about 17 tons of coal; in 1903, it operated for 902 hours and consumed 13 tons of coal, in 1905, it operated for 409 hours and consumed about 12 tons of coal, and in 1906, operated for 199 hours and consumed 6 tons of coal.13

A wire fence with four gates enclosed the tract in 1903. In 1905, a wooden coalhouse with tin roof was built, about 650 running feet of plank walk was laid, and a wooden addition to the fog signal house was made. An incandescent oil-vapor lamp fueled by vaporized kerosene in a mantle replaced the wick lamp in 1910. This change increased the candlepower from 6,000 to 22,000. In 1911, a 55mm incandescent oil vapor lamp was kept as a spare. In late 1909 or early 1910, a "new compressed air fog signal plant" was built. Building plans for this structure dated October 1909 indicate the new fog signal building was probably modified from the original coal-fired fog signal building as one section on the plan is titled "formerly the coal shed, now used for oil storage." At some later date, the "radio apparatus" was placed here.

In 1909, the fog signal was a cylindrical siren diaphone that gave a two-second blast every 18 seconds. Three summer kitchens existed in 1911 as well as two storehouses. The water was supplied from Fort Story. There were no boats assigned to the station. By 1911, a branch of the Norfolk Southern railroad was built to the military station, and it was used to supply the lighthouse station as well. In 1917, bids were received to construct a 3-story brick concrete building for the Weather Bureau. It is not known if this structure was ever built, but it is interesting that the building then being occupied by the Weather Bureau was requested by the Bureau of Lighthouses to be used for housing purposes, as there were four keepers and only three dwellings. An incandescent electric lamp and spare generating equipment costing $3,961 was installed in 1922 that changed the beacon from a fixed white to a "group flashing light of distinctive character." This was necessary to help mariners to be able to distinguish between lights that were now common along the Atlantic Coast. The light had an intensity of 80,000 candlepower and could be seen at sea up to nineteen miles away. The original steam powered fog signal, later replaced by a compressed air system driven by 15 horsepower De La Verge oil engines that drove the compressors, was then replaced by an electric diaphone system.14

In the Lighthouse Board Annual Report for 1923 it stated:

This station is the most prominent and frequently visited station in the district, and improvements to grounds and structures should be made, but on account of the cost the service has been unable to complete them from the general maintenance appropriation.

The entire reservation requires grading, sewer, and water system. All the dwellings now on the reservation should be moved to symmetrical positions with respect to tower.

A circa 1930's War Department map shows the two circa 1881 keeper's quarters moved closer to the tower with the head keeper's quarters approximately 100 feet directly north of the tower, the assistant keeper's quarters directly east of the head keeper's, and an additional assistant keeper's quarters placed directly west of the head keeper's quarters. Thus, a "T" was formed with the three keeper's dwellings as the horizontal and the tower at the far end of the vertical.

A radio fog signal was installed in 1923. The world's first synchronized radiobeacon and electric oscillator air fog signal was put into commission at Cape Henry Light Station in May 1929. This "radio fog signal" sent out a characteristic signal on the 1,000-meter wavelength that could be picked up by vessels equipped with radio direction finders. The vessel's position was accomplished by determining the intersection of bearings taken on two, or preferably more, stations established along the coast. The radiobeacon tower was 120 feet tall. The Cape Henry Light Station also employed a 2-kilowatt Marconi spark set, which sent out two dots, and a dash on 1,000-meter wavelengths for 20 seconds and then 15 seconds of silence. At some later time, the station also experimented with a tube transmitting set.15 Also, in 1929, the station was described as consisting of a lighthouse, three keeper's quarters, two summer kitchens, an oil house, a workshop, and a storehouse, all located on eight acres of land totally valued at $124,930.16

A reinforced concrete fog signal testing laboratory was nearly completed costing $34,915 as of June 30, 1935. By 1939, the station was equipped with an electric lamp of 160,000 candlepower visible 19 miles at sea. The radiobeacon was audible 200 or more miles at sea and the fog signal testing laboratory, utilized by the entire lighthouse service, was in full operation by this time. From 1946 (and possibly as early as 1940) to 1956, the lower gallery of the lighthouse tower was enclosed and used by the U.S. Army as part of their harbor defense unit. In 1950 or 1951, new sanitary facilities were installed for an estimated cost of $11,000. The light in 1955 was described as a "group flashing white" light of 160,000 candlepower and a red sector of 50,000 candlepower. During construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel, Sverdrups and Parcel, consulting engineers, used the lighthouse tower to take theodolite observations. On January 15, 1982, the light and its backup system failed during a four-hour period. In the same year, the Coast Guard experimented with wind power to generate energy to power the station. Cape Henry Light Station was used as the test site, but the actual use of such a system was intended for more remote stations without electricity. The experiment was funded from a $100,000 federal grant. The Virginia Pilot Association originally intended to build a new pilot control tower near the Cape Henry Lighthouse, but to cut costs, obtained a lease from the Coast Guard to mount a new tower on the 1935 fog signal test laboratory building.17

Keepers at Cape Henry (second tower) Light Station

The keeper, probably Jay D. Edwards, was removed on October 14, 1885, "for cause after a full and fair investigation." It was stated by the lighthouse inspector that he made "false returns and statements were among the causes." Edwards stated his discharge was "on account of being a Republican." It is interesting to note that Edwards performed a heroic act in keeping the fog signal going during a storm in January 1885 and that a replacement position was filled by a man recommended by the County Chairman of the Democratic Party. Edwards turned over the lighthouse to M. L. O'Dell who was promoted to principal keeper on October 29, 1885. W. W. Edwards was second assistant keeper until he left on November 11, 1885. William G. Holland was employed as laborer on November 18, 1885. O'Dell tendered his resignation on October 22, 1890, and turned over the property to first assistant Howell as acting keeper on November 10, 1890. Utah C. Jennette was keeper at Cape Henry for 24 years (exact dates unknown). In 1906, the principal keeper received $820 per year, the first assistant keeper, $550, and the second assistant keeper $500. E. H. Riggs, keeper, I. C. Meekins, first assistant keeper, and Barney Thomas, third assistant keeper, rendered assistance to a disabled hydroplane in 1921.18


9. Major Bibliographical References


Adamson, Hans Christian. Keepers of the Lights. New York: New York, 1955.

"Cape Henry Light. "Guide to Historically Famous Lighthouses in the United States. U.S. Coast Guard 150th Anniversary of the Lighthouse Service, 1939.

Clifford, Candace. 1994 Inventory of Historic Light Stations. Department of Interior, National Park Service, History Division, Washington, D.C., 1994.

de Gast, Robert. The Lighthouses of the Chesapeake. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1973.

De Wire, Elinor. "Old Cape Henry Lighthouse." no date, no publisher, but believed to be an article from Lighthouse Digest.

Hatch, Jr., Charles M. "The Old Cape Henry Light: A Survey Report." Unpublished manuscript report for the National Park Service, 1962.

Johnson, Arnold Burgess. The Modern Light-house Service. Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1890.

"Lighthouse still a beacon of allure." Daily Press, August 18, 1989.

"Pages from the Past, Cape Henry, VA." Keeper's Log, Spring 1994.

Putnam, George R. Lighthouses and Lightships of the United States. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1933.

Sheely, Jr., Horace J. "Cape Henry Lighthouse National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings." National Park Service, 1963.

U.S. Lighthouse Board. Annual Reports, 1876-1935. Department of Commerce and Labor, 1876-1935.

Witney, Dudley. The Lighthouse. New York Graphic Society, Boston, 1975.

Previous documentation on file (NPS)

___ preliminary determination of individual listing (36 CFR 67) has been requested.

___ previously listed in the National Register

___ previously determined eligible by the National Register

___ designated a National Historic Landmark

___ recorded by Historic American Buildings Survey # __________

___ recorded by Historic American Engineering Record #

Primary Location of Additional Data

___ State Historic Preservation Office

___ Other State agency

X Federal agency

___ Local government

___ University

___ Other

Name of repository: National Archives; Library of Congress; National Maritime Initiative, National Park Service; U.S. Coast Guard Headquarter, Historian's Office, Washington, D.C.


10. Geographical Data


Acreage of Property: 5 acres

USGS Quadrangle: Cape Henry, VA

UTM References: Zone Easting Northing

18 410340 4087000

Verbal Boundary Description (Describe the boundaries of the property):

As per deed dated June 10, 1880, "beginning at a post set in the ground, which first breaks South twenty degrees West (S20 W) and distant fifty feet (55 feet),...from thence running North seventy degrees West (N70 W) one hundred and thirty five feet (135 feet), thence North twenty degrees East (N20 E) six hundred and seventy feet (670 feet), thence South seventy degrees East (S70 E) five hundred and twenty feet (520 feet), thence South twenty degrees West (S20 W) six hundred and seventy feet (670 feet), thence North seventy degrees West (N70 W) three hundred and eighty five feet (385) to the place of the beginning, the said tract of land containing six (6) acres, and surrounding the tract of two acres of land conveyed to the said party...August 9th, 1790... The total area originally consisted of approximately eight acres." When Fort Story was built, the northern three-fifths of the property was cut off from the lower two-fifths containing the "old Cape Henry" lighthouse by a road. The northern portion of the original 1880 deed consists of about five acres.

Boundary Justification:

The northern two-thirds of the original 1880 deed boundary includes the "new" (1881) lighthouse tower and other contributing station structures on approximately five acres of land, completely encompassing the light station. This section of the original 1880 property is surrounded by a concrete post and iron rail fence encompassing the proposed light station boundary.


11. Form Prepared By


name/title: Ralph E. Eshelman, Maritime Historian; Edited and revised August 2002 by Jennifer Perunko, NCSHPO Consultant, National Maritime Initiative, National Park Service

organization: U.S. Lighthouse Society cooperative agreement with the National Park Service National Maritime Initiative

date: March 24, 1996

street & number: 1849 C Street, N.W., Room NC400

city or town: Washington state: DC zip code: 20240

telephone: 410-326-4877 or 202-343-9508


Property Owner


name: U.S. Coast Guard, Fifth District

street & number: Federal Building, 431 Crawford St.

city or town: Portsmouth state: VA zip code: 23705-5004

telephone: (757) 398-6351


1 Much of this narrative is derived from a section of a condition assessment report on Cape Henry (second tower) Light Station prepared by the National Park Service's Historic Preservation Training Center in 1995/1996. This report is on file at the National Maritime Initiative office, National Register, History, and Education Programs, National Park Service, Washington, D.C. Also, the description and associated photographs were reviewed in September 2002 by a US Coast Guard Aid to Navigation team responsible for the property. A document verifying that the description and associated photographs reflect the current condition of the property is on file with the Office of Civil Engineering, US Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

2 Dudley Witney, The Lighthouse, New York Graphic Society, Boston (1975), p. 216.

3 Arnold Burgess Johnson, The Modern Light-house Service, Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1890, p. 245.

4 Elinor Dewire, "Old Cape Henry Lighthouse," no date, no publisher, but believed to be an article from Lighthouse Digest.

5 "Description of Cape Henry Light Station," July 5, 1911, copy in Cape Henry Light file, National Maritime Initiative Office, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.

6Letter dated Sept. 24, 1993 from James Christian Hill, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Historic Resources in National Maritime Initiative inventory file for Cape Henry (2nd Tower) Light.

7 Lighthouse Board, Annual Report 1872, pp. 38-39, 1873, p. 42, 1874, p. 43, 1875, pp. 42-43, 1876, p. 32, 1878, p. 34, and 1879, p. 35; Robert de Gast, The Lighthouses of the Chesapeake (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1993), p. 13; Charles M. Hatch, Jr., "The Old Cape Henry Light: A Survey Report" (unpublished manuscript report for the National Park Service, 1962); and Horace J. Sheely, Jr., "Cape Henry Lighthouse National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings" (National Park Service, 1963), copy at National Maritime Initiative Office, Washington, D.C. The Lighthouse Board reports are silent as to who the additional property was purchased from and the name A.A. and Marion McCullough may be a confusion with the one of the contractors or they may one in the same.

8 Deed, abstract of title and a study of April 2, 1880, in the Lighthouse Site File, Virginia, No. 6 (Cape Henry), U.S. Coast Guard Records, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; and Hatch, pp. 31-33.

9 Lighthouse Board, Annual Report, 1880, p.34, and 1881, p. 37; and "Cape Henry light-station, Va." U.S. Coast Guard Records, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

10 Lighthouse Board, Annual Report, 1881, p. 33, and 1882, p. 37.

11 Quote from "Cape Henry Light Station," attributed to Scott engineer Alan Stevenson.

12 "Cape Henry Light Station," and "Cape Henry light-station, Va." U.S. Coast Guard Records, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

13 Arnold B. Johnson, "Upon the Exhibit of the Light-house Board at the World's Columbian Exposition Held at Chicago, 1893," Report of the Light-house Board, 1894, Appendix Number III (Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1894), p. 245; Lighthouse Board, Annual Report, 1883, p. 48, 1888, p. 80 and 90, 1890, p. 94, 1892, p. 91, 1897, p. 94 and 103, 1899, p. 99 and 110, 1901, p. 543, 1903, p. 84, 1905, p. 87, and 1906, p. 72.

14 "Cape Henry Light Station," "Cape Henry light-station, Va.," and "clipping file," U.S. Coast Guard Records, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; "Historically Famous Lighthouses," pp. 86-87; Lighthouse Board, Annual Report, 1903, p. 84, 1905, p. 78 and 86, 1913, p. 45, 1922, p. 73, 1923, pp 33 and 49; and "Description of Cape Henry Light Station, July 5, 1911, copy in Cape Henry Light Station file, National Maritime Initiative Office, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.

15 Lighthouse Board, Annual Report, 1923, p. 34; de Gast, p. 13; and George R. Putnam, Lighthouses and Lightships of the United States (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1933), p. 343.

16 United States Lighthouse Service Annual Report (1929), p. 5; "Cape Henry Light Station," "Cape Henry light-station, Va.," and "clipping file," U.S. Coast Guard Records, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

17 Lighthouse Board, Annual Report, 1935, p. 122; "Cape Henry Light," Guide to Historically Famous Lighthouses in the United States, U.S. Coast Guard 150th Anniversary of the Lighthouse Service (1939), n.p.; copy of routing slip of request for work dated October 10, 1950, Cape Henry Lighthouse file, Historian's Office, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, D.C.; Hans Christian Adamson, Keepers of the Lights (New York: Greenberg, 1955), pp. 155 and 390; "Nest To American's Oldest Lighthouse Will Be America's Newest Control Tower" (no date, statement about America's oldest lighthouse is in error); and John Stevenson, "Cape Henry lighthouse lit by wind," Virginia-Pilot (March 5, 1982), p. D3. Copies in Cape Henry file, National Maritime Initiative office, National Park Service, Washington, D.C. Cape Henry Light also appeared in Oceans (1985) 18:10 July/August; and New York Times (January 5, 1927) 37:2.

18 "Pages from the Past, Cape Henry, VA" (Keeper's Log, Spring 1994), p. 27; "Lighthouse still a beacon of allure" (Daily Press, August 18, 1989), p. B4; and Lighthouse Board, Annual Report, 1921, p. 60.

NPS Form 10-900 USDI/NPS NRHP Registration Form (Rev. 8-86) OMB No. 1024-0018