By KRISTIN DAVIS
Old Cape Henry Lighthouse should have disappeared when its lantern went black more than a century ago.
Cracks split through its stone face and inspectors deemed it unsafe. A newer, more modern one beamed a few hundred feet away, safely beckoning ships into the Chesapeake Bay.
But from the time Old Cape Henry went up in 1791 until its replacement was lit in 1881, the lighthouse was more than a guide. It was a landmark, a symbol of a young country’s progress.
So Old Cape Henry stayed.
That’s a lucky turn of history for me and dozens of others who climb its winding staircase on this warm March day. And lucky for the thousands of others who’ve followed in the keepers’ footsteps over the years.
This is my second visit to Old Cape Henry, one of a dozen lighthouses I’ve visited in Florida, Virginia and North Carolina. I do not collect miniatures or wallpaper my house in the bricked, painted and patterned towers, but they do intrigue me.
Lighthouses represent another age, when sailors relied on stars and simple instruments and beams of artificial light to guide them. They represent a time when a man or woman spent years by the lonely sea, climbing hundreds of steps in heat and cold and storms.
Today Old Cape Henry Lighthouse is just two miles from Virginia Beach’s hub, but getting there isn’t easy. Because it sits on Fort Story military base, visitors must first pass through security. This could involve a car search.
Once you are on the other side, away from the glittery allure of shops, restaurants and million-dollar beach houses shoehorned along the shore, you’ll find a largely unspoiled landscape–much like it was when light keepers lit Old Cape Henry’s oil lamps.
U.S. history here is nearly as old as it gets. The first permanent European settlers landed at Cape Henry in 1606, made their way up the James River and founded Jamestown.
Old Cape Henry lighthouse overlooks the place they first stepped ashore. Old Cape Henry came along 185 years later, after Virginia had gone from colony to state.
By then the beacon was long overdue. For half a century the Colonial governments of Maryland and Virginia got tangled in “red tape” over its construction. When the materials were finally bought and delivered, the Revolutionary War intervened.
The lighthouse was among the first orders of business when the very first Congress of the United States met in 1789. It was also the first federal work project.
Cape Henry Lighthouse took about a year to build and cost $17,700. (“Old” was added when the new one opened in 1881.)
The slim, octagonal tower was made with stone from our very own Aquia quarries in Stafford County–the same sandstone used in Mount Vernon, the White House and U.S. Capitol. You can also find it at Kenmore, home of George Washington’s sister Betty Lewis and her husband, Fielding Lewis, in Fredericksburg.
Workers had quite a time hauling the heavy, awkward sandstone all the way to the coast by way of the Rappahannock River.
Today the 90-foot lighthouse stands as tall and imposing as it must have in its early days, though I imagine salty winds and rain have faded it.
The light that warned ships is more than 100 years gone, but visitors can stand inside its lantern and see where oil lamps–and later, reflecting Argand lamps–once glowed.
It costs $4 to climb Old Cape Henry. A friendly staff sells tickets inside a quaint gift shop where lighthouse coins, books, coasters and shirts line shelves.
The shop’s back door leads outside, where Old Cape Henry stands at the top of a steep set of stone steps.
It is early March, but the weather feels more like midspring. The sky is soft blue, and warm breezes blow in from the bay.
Old Cape Henry is dim and cool, retaining its winter chill thanks to the stone exterior and brick lining added a few years before the Civil War. The black iron staircase spirals up like neatly positioned dominoes.
The view from the bottom is dizzying. I climb anyway, counting the steps as I go.
The original stairs were wooden–and flammable. They remained for 60 years without incident and were replaced during a renovation.
When I reach the platform where a vertical ladder leads to the lantern, I’ve counted 85 steps. But I can’t be sure because three little windows have distracted me along the way.
It is warm and bright inside Old Cape Henry’s small glass crown. I take in the unobstructed, 360-degree view.
This would have been a good day to be a lighthouse keeper, standing as high as the birds over a sparkling blue bay.
To reach KRISTIN DAVIS:540/368-5028
What: Old Cape Henry Lighthouse, the United States’ first. In operation from 1792 until 1881, when the New Cape Henry Lighthouse replaced it.
Where: 583 Atlantic Ave., Fort Story, Va., 23459. Virginia Beach is just a couple of miles away.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost: $4 for adults, $2 for children 3 to 12
Info: 757/422-9421 or on the Web at apva.org/cape henry