VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — It’s often difficult for Congress to agree on various matters. Something the very first Congress could agree on was the necessity of a lighthouse at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay.
Authorized by George Washington and overseen by Alexander Hamilton, the Cape Henry Lighthouse became the first federally funded construction project approved by the new nation.
The old stone lighthouse guided ships through the Chesapeake Bay for nearly 100 years.
In the 1870s cracks started to appear in the stone lighthouse, the cracks were superficial but inspectors didn’t know that at the time. Congress approved construction for a new lighthouse right beside the old one. The new Cape Henry Lighthouse, built of steel, was completed in 1881.
The new lighthouse is still operated by the U.S. Coast Guard today.
Since it’s still operational, visitors can’t climb the new lighthouse. But you can still step your way to the top of the old one.
The lighthouses are located on Fort Story. Military members can drive right up to the parking lot. Civilians can take a mile-long shuttle ride from the base gate to the site.
During a visit, you’ll also learn about one of the lighthouses’ most prominent keepers, Willis Augustus Hodges.
Hodges was born a free man in Blackwater, what today is Virginia Beach. He was an active abolitionist, journalist and reconstructionist politician and the first African American lighthouse keeper for Cape Henry.
“What he was able to accomplish throughout his life and what he represents is such an important story” explained Sachi Carlson the site coordinator for Preservation Virginia, the nonprofit that owns and operates the lighthouse. “I think that we have the perfect opportunity to let more people know about who he was and what he did and what he meant to the area as well.”
Visitors can also see the spot where English settlers first touched land in Virginia for the first time in 1607 before heading inland to establish Jamestown.