Cape Henry Lighthouse

Cape Henry Lighthouse is truly an American historic icon. George Washington gave his authorization for The Project. It was positioned where the first of those from the "Old World" initially set foot in what to them was this "New World" - although not certainly in time to help them out!

Today The Oldest Cape Henry Tower is located within the Joint Expeditionary Base Fort Story. Thus it's on a military base, and certain requirements must be followed To Visit. But what are the specifics, the intrigues and history that would entice you to do that? We're here to help you with that.

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Plus there is the newer Cape Henry Lighthouse - what is that story?? Why are there Two Lighthouses at Cape Henry?

Visit Cape Henry Lighthouse at Fort Story

Cape Henry Lighthouse Building Facts

Blueprint for the Cape Henry LighthousePlanning the Build

Construction was finished in October 1792, under the auspices of this brand new country's constitution which recognized the importance of sea-going precautions. Alexander Hamilton was given administration of this realm, and he took charge right away. He contracted lighthouse builder, John McComb for the job. Some of the tower was built of sandstone blocks.1 Others brought to the site for the anticipated project couldn't be salvaged, when it was built.5 Some of these were sourced from leftovers at prior government construction projects.1

The importance for a lighthouse at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, was thought of as early as 1720. Even before the American Revolution. With quarrels between Maryland and Virginia for its financing, construction didn't begin until 1773. Working teams, including slave labor, toiled for two years until funding was exhausted. Then the Revolution interrupted further progress, until passage of the 1789 Lighthouse Act under the new constitution. It has its place in American history as the "first lighthouse paid for entirely by the federal government."5

Why Build a Second Cape Henry Lighthouse?

Keepers were alarmed when noting fissures starting to appear in the tower. Fearing further disintegration, the Lighthouse Board ordered construction of a new lighthouse. Built quite differently in 1881. Made from more solid masonry, but then covered with iron plates that were bolted together.1

The first Cape Henry Lighthouse was retired from service, and so it is not in use for mariners today. But it was never dismantled. Despite those initially appearing rifts, it's still stable and enduring.1 That's the one that is visited now, when you go there.

Other Cape Henry Lighthouse History Reportage

Since Cape Henry was such an early lighthouse construction, and George Washington was instrumental in getting it started, he sometimes took a hands-on approach to some of its management. He gave his input to Secretary Hamilton regarding one of the guys who applied for a Lighthouse Keeper position. He thought he might be "intemperate in drinking" - and that characteristic would be "an insuperable objection... [regardless of his] promises of reformation..."5

Eventually with the construction of so many more lighthouses, the Federal leadership became less involved in regular stewardship, and delegated supervision to port-side customs authorities.5

In the war of 1812, Britain made wide use of their Navy against American shipping and ports. Even kidnapping U.S. citizen sailors, so to speak, to enforce their serving in the British Navy.6 One incident was an attack at Cape Henry Lighthouse on February 14, 1813. It had become a technique of some Royal Navy Ship Commodores to retaliate against the coastal blockade, while at the same time restocking their supplies. A newspaper reported they raided Cape Henry Lighthouse's: "pantry and smoke house of the keeper..." That they took "hams, mince pies and sausages, leaving not a link behind!"5

How to Visit Cape Henry Lighthouse

Today Cape Henry Lighthouse is overseen by Preservation Virginia, who is privately funded by organizations, with a mission to restore and preserve the Commonwealth of Virginia's historic places. 

Some wonder if the Cape Henry Lighthouse is free? Only for those under 42" tall, as they're not allowed up the tower. Or if you become a member. So how much is the admission? 

  • Adults - $10
  • Seniors 60+/Military/AAA members - $9
  • Students - $8
  • Children less than 42 inches tall - Free


Mid March (16th) through October - 10am to 5pm

All Other Months - 10am to 4pm


Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Day, New Years Eve and Day, and January 2nd

Where in Virginia is the Cape Henry Lighthouse?

  • Address: 583 Atlantic Avenue, Fort Story, North of Virginia Beach.2
  1. When on US Hwy. 60, take the Shore Drive exit toward Beaches. 
  2. Continue along Shore Drive
  3. Make a left onto Atlantic Avenue
  4. Proceed to Gate 8 to park in a nearby designated parking spot
  5. Get on board a free shuttle that take you into the Cape Henry Lighthouse park area

Visiting Requirements:Very important to adhere to these rules, as you'll be entering a military base - Only Visitors with an authorized government ID will be allowed to drive directly to the Cape Henry Lighthouse (official base access: i.e., military ID, retiree ID, dependent ID, etc.2). For all others:

  • Process:
  1. At the gate inform base security personnel you're visiting Cape Henry Lighthouse
  • Then produce the required documentation:
  1. Driver of vehicle must be able to produce valid vehicle registration and proof of insurance
  2. Visitors can access the base as a pedestrian or on bicycle with a valid ID
  3. Valid ID card for all visitors 16-years of age and older
  • Security will direct you to parking are near the gate.
  • Next you'll proceed to the awning area for a security check before boarding the shuttle to the Cape Henry historic area.
  1. Visitors must be able to pass a background check
  2. Not allowed on base: Illegal drugs, alcohol, contraband and weapons
  3. Items allowed on the Shuttle: One small handbag per visitor, infant bag as appropriate & if pertinent an Infant stroller.
  • After visiting the historic sites, you'll take the shuttle back to the vehicle parking area.

Tips for Visiting Cape Henry Lighthouse

Cape Henry Lighthouse Visit Tips:3

New Cape Henry Lighthouse on a Poster about advantages of visiting the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse
  • Remember that the "new" Cape Henry Lighthouse, from 1881, is closed to the public.3 So your tour won't include going to that lighthouse. But you'll see it in the distance. Certainly close enough to get some snapshots of it! It is still a beacon in use for seafaring safety.4
  • If you have a child under 42 inches tall, they're not allowed up the tower. Even if you carry them. Carrying children up the tower is not allowed at all.
  1. The tower is 90 feet tall1, with 191 steps to the top!4
  • If possible, try planning your Cape Henry Lighthouse trip for weekdays, before 11am or after 3pm. Weekends and middays are more liable to have delays, with long entrance station lines, and more limited parking spaces.  Wait times can be more than one hour on holidays/busy weekends. When the parking lot is full, only one car may enter when another one exits.
  • During summer Cape Henry Lighthouse closes the tower 
  1. If the inside Heat Index gets to 125°. 
  2. When lightning has been spotted and during thunderstorms. 
  3. If the tower is closed you may walk to the top of the dune and/or visit the museum/store. 
  4. Winter weather advisories may affect the tower opening.
  • For specific information for your visit, contact them:
  2. 757-422-9421
Plaque on lighthouse describes historyTablet at Cape Henry Lighthouse Speaks of the History Here



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