Cape Henry Lighthouse is Finally Getting Fixed



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Turn to Stone         

The need to repair old Cape Henry became evident in 1990, when a report by Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources found that the tower had serious “issues.” (A similar conclusion had been reached more than 100 years earlier by another inspector. But we’ll get to that in a minute.)         

The big problem was the condition of the lighthouse base. Several feet of sand had shifted since John McComb’s time, exposing the Aquia sandstone that makes up the base. “It was never meant to be exposed,” Malon says. “This stone is much softer than the red-hued Rappahannock rock that makes up the rest of the lighthouse. With the blowing of sand and wind, over time, the [Aquia] stone has begun to show erosion.”         

Many of the patch jobs and improvements made over the years to Cape Henry’s base have proven damaging in the long run. “Some repairs were made [in the past] using something called a ‘Portland cement’ that has proven to be too harsh for bricks and stone like that,” he says. “It’s actually exacerbated the erosion.”         

Way back in 1864, a brick cylinder was installed inside of the stone to encase a new cast-iron spiral staircase. It was a great idea, as the original wooden staircase was a real fire hazard (something Benjamin LaTrobe had noted decades earlier). “But the new brick has caused the weight to shift,” Malon says. “The Coast Guard abandoned the lighthouse in the mid-19th century because they didn’t think it was stable. That’s why a new one was built.”         

Cape Henry Lighthouse old and new virginia beachIn June 1878, the U.S. Congress raised $75,000 to replace McComb’s lighthouse with a cast iron model. That striped wonder was finished in 1881 and stands 350 feet from the old Cape Henry, larger in size but somehow dwarfed by its predecessor because of the slumping of the dunes. Still in use today as a beacon, the new boy, itself declared a National Historic Landmark, became fully automated in 1984 and is maintained today by the Coast Guard.         

Amazingly, despite the pronouncement 140 years ago that the old Cape Henry was unstable, it still stands tall. There is no serious structural damage (something the repairs hope to ward off); it’s safe enough to host 50,000–80,000 visitors a year. Malon, for one, still marvels at the sturdy and exquisite design of John McComb’s creation. “I’m amazed that they could build this in the 18th century. You look at those octagonal corners, and the angles are perfect, the working on that stone is just ideal. And it was all done by hand.”

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