Cape Charles Lighthouse

Nov. 13, 2019

Cape Charles Lighthouse, Smith Island, Chesapeake Bay, Virginia


Location:  Smiths Island / Chesapeake Bay entrance
Date Built:  Original tower - 1828, current tower - 1895
Type of Structure:  Octagonal skeletal tower built on concrete piers, central column
Markings / Pattern:  White with black lantern
Height:  180 feet above mean high water
Characteristics:  Flashing white
Foghorn:  Yes 
Appropriation:  $150,000
Range:  24 miles
Status:  Standing and Active

Historical Information:   

  • The original lighthouse on Smith Island, near Cape Charles, Va., at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay was completed in 1828, at a cost of $7,398.82. In 1856 Congress appropriated $35,000 for "rebuilding the Cape Charles Lighthouse upon a proper site and fitting it with proper illuminating apparatus. This sum was spent in 1858 and 1859 and on June 20, 1860, an additional $10,200 was appropriated for a keeper’s dwelling. Only about $1,890 of this was spent, however. Before the new tower was finished it was completely destroyed by "a party of guerrillas" (Confederate) in the Civil War then raging.
  • "In August last (1862)" the Lighthouse Board reported "the lighthouse at Cape Charles was visited by a party of guerrillas, who completely destroyed the light, carrying away such portable articles as they deemed valuable. The new tower authorized for that station had, at the outbreak of the rebellion progressed in construction to a height of 83 feet, the greater part of the materials to complete the tower to its proper height (150 feet) being on the ground, stored, ready for future use. During the rebel occupancy of this part of the peninsula, the articles which had been stored were subjected to indiscriminate pilfering and spoliation, so that a new provision will have to be made."
  • In 1864 Congress appropriated $20,000 for rebuilding the lighthouse and the tower was completed forthwith, the light being first exhibited on May 7, 1864. "Owing to the liability of this important light to an attack from the enemy the Board reported on June 30, 1864, "a competent military guard for its protection has been asked for."  The encroachment of the sea upon the shore at this station had been in progress for many years by 1883 and about 300 feet had been washed away since 1857. By that time (1883) the waterline was within 300 feet of the tower and still nearer the keeper’s dwelling. The average annual encroachment was then about 30 feet. As a result, Congress in 1885 appropriated $10,000 to be used for "jetties of stone resting upon heavy timber mattresses to prevent too rapid sinking into the sand."
  • However, further congressional action was believed necessary in that year to authorize the purchase of additional land needed for the three large jetties and $30,000 was asked for this purpose. By 1886 about 120 feet of brush mattresses of this shore protection were completed and partially loaded with stone and about 80 feet of one jetty was finished extending from the shore to about low water mark. The jetty had already gathered much sand but had washed away somewhat at the sea extremity. In 1889, as steps were being taken to extend the protection, a heavy northeasterly gale washed away about 75 feet of the jetty and undermined the south end of the protection wall, and, at one time, the station was entirely surrounded by water. The retreat of the shore was not local but was general along the island. Any protection works, therefore, would have to extend a long distance to the northeast and be very expensive. It was, therefore, thought to be more economical to build a new light station where it would not be exposed to any danger. This would cost about $150,000.
  • Measures were meanwhile taken to construct four jetties at right angles to the shore protection and a protection wall in front of the one still standing. These were begun in February 1890. An appropriation of $150,000 for a new tower was made on August 30, 1890. The new jetties were finished in April 1891.  The contract for a new iron tower on a new site was signed in June 1893 and the structure was completed December 21, 1894. A first-order lens was installed and the light first exhibited August 15, 1895. The tower is an octagonal, pyramidal skeleton structure, 191 feet above land and 180 feet above water. The 1,200,000 candlepower first-order electric apparatus is unwatched and is visible 20 miles.