Cape Henry Lighthouse is Finally Getting Fixed
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A Certain Kind of Light
By all accounts, John McComb made stuff to last. Born in 1753, the master bricklayer built New York’s City Hall and was also responsible for Gracie Mansion, the New York City Mayoral residence. During his career, he also constructed three lighthouses, all still standing.
The most famous of these beacons, the old Cape Henry Lighthouse, stands on the edge of First Landing State Park and the Fort Story military base in Virginia Beach, not far from where the original Jamestown settlers made a historic pit stop in 1607.
The third oldest survivor, this isn’t just any lighthouse. Erected in 1792, the intricately chiseled, 90-foot stone tower was commissioned by George Washington and its construction overseen by Alexander Hamilton. The final cost of the building (and its two-story lightman’s cottage) was $17,700 in 18th-century dollars. It was originally budgeted at $15,200, but the shifty sand conditions meant laying the foundation 20 feet instead of 12, an additional cost of $2,500 and more than a few man-hours. McComb, for his part, was uncomplaining and even-keeled throughout a tense construction. “He is persevering and merits much for his industry,” one of Hamilton’s agents reported.
It was of pressing national security interest to secure this particular site, to put a light here. Even today, you must pass through a military checkpoint to enter the lighthouse grounds. The Cape Henry Light stands at the juncture of the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, a nautical hub which leads into the harbors of Coastal Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C. This was once the entrance to the new world, for both friend and foe. It was also where many a sailor had perished, his ship run aground, as the gap between Cape Henry and Cape Hatteras earned its macabre nickname, “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
Cape Henry wasn’t just the first lighthouse constructed by our new United States; it was the very first federal project of any kind. Looking today at the unpainted, hand-made structure, described by engineer Benjamin Latrobe a few years after construction as “an octangular truncated pyramid of eight sides, six or seven hundred yards from the beach,” you see the first light of democracy.
“It solidified us a nation rather than a conglomeration of states. It was the first federal work by our new nation,” says Jennifer Hurst-Wender, the director of museum operations and education at Preservation Virginia, the statewide organization that owns and maintains the tower. “The idea of a nation with interstate travel and commerce depended on it. That’s really the importance of Cape Henry Lighthouse.”
This site has seen much history. “It would have been the ideal place to witness the battle of the Virginia Capes,” Hurst-Wender says with a smile. The decisive 1781 Revolutionary War sea battle, also known as the Battle of the Chesapeake, saw the French navy successfully blockade English ships from trying to resupply their troops in Yorktown. “This is the reason Cornwallis had to surrender,” she says. “And so this battle is the reason we won the war and independence.”