9 Virginia Lighthouses

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Are you an American history buff? Lighthouses played a vital role in the early growth and development of our United States of America. Built as guiding lights, they became victims of war. Some were even subjected to both the War of 1812 and then the Civil War. Virginia lighthouses are among America’s oldest, most historic and worth a visit.

a brick lighthouse in Virginia. Old Cape Henry Lighthouse
Old Cape Henry Lighthouse, Chesapeake Bay

Originally lit with candles, time brought progress and lighthouses were lit by oil, then by electricity which allowed them to be automated and no longer need a keeper. Later, some are even lit by solar energy.

In the beginning a keeper was necessary to light the tower each night and keep it lit. Those keepers were a critical part of American history. They were subjected to all manners of unpleasant conditions for themselves and their families to get the job done of guiding ships into port. Prior to lighthouses, ships would land in the wrong places with nothing to guide them.

Today, most vessels are equipped with technology to guide them ashore and no longer rely on lighthouses for much more than landmarks.

Lighthouse Board

The very first Public Works Act was passed August 7, 1789 and created the United States Lighthouse Establishment. Little known fact, August 7th is National Lighthouse Day.  In 1852, The Lighthouse Board was created to oversee all of the lighthouses in the United States, a job which now falls to the U.S. Coast Guard.

9 Historic Virginia Lighthouses

While there are more than 9 lighthouses in Virginia, for the purposes of this article, we are sharing those which are original, not replicas and still standing. Although you can visit these, you may not be able to climb the tower but you can still walk the grounds and take photos at most. There are a few which are screwpile, in the water, only visible up close by boat. Most of those have gone up for public auction and are privately owned. When the Coast Guard first tries to relinquish a lighthouse, they begin by offering it free of charge to charitable organizations dedicated to the preservation of American history. When that effort fails, the lighthouse is put up for public auction and may even be listed on ebay. Three Virginia lighthouses which went up for auction are listed in this article.

Old Cape Henry Lighthouse

Where: Navy Military Base at Fort Story

Visitors: Yes on a seasonal schedule. As it is on a military Base, proper ID is required for visiting the site.

History: There are two lighthouses at Cape Henry. The oldest brick lighthouse was completed in 1792 but was damaged during the Civil War. Due to concerns of stability of the original lighthouse, the second Cape Henry Lighthouse was completed in 1881.

The Old Cape Henry Lighthouse is open to the public with seasonal hours. It is maintained and operated to visitors by Preservation Virginia and is a National Historic Landmark. Both lighthouses are located within the Navy Military Base, Fort Story. While they are open to the public, you must go through security and provide valid ID.

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New Cape Henry Lighthouse
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New Cape Henry Lighthouse

Where: 100 yards from the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse at Fort Story

Visitors: Yes on a seasonal schedule. As it is on a military Base, proper ID is required for visiting the site.

History: The New Cape Henry Lighthouse was built to replace the aging older version and stands just about 100 yards away from the old one. It stands a majestic 165 feet tall and provides a striking view with it’s black and white checkerboard paint which makes it very recognizable as a daymark.

Owned by the Coast Guard.

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Assateague Lighthouse in Virginia

Assateague Lighthouse

Where: Assateague Island, the Virginia portion

Visitors Allowed: Yes. April through November

History: The original lighthouse was constructed in 1833 at a cost of approximately $55,000. In 1860, construction on a taller, more powerfully illuminated brick lighthouse began, but was delayed by the Civil War. Following the war, construction resumed and the lighthouse was completed in 1867. Assateague’s lighthouse has twin rotating lights which take turns on a timer each night with their iconic double flash. The guiding lights stand at 154 feet above sea level and can be seen 19 miles out. The Assateague Lighthouse stands 142 feet high with its base over 27 feet in diameter.

The View: From atop the Assateague lighthouse you will find a spectacular view of Chincoteague Island, Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge, Assateague beach, Atlantic Ocean, Wallops Island and portions of the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland as well as Assateague wild ponies and other wildlife.

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New Point Comfort Lighthouse in Virginia
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New Point Comfort Light

Where: Port Haywood

Visitors: Yes. The lighthouse is only accessible by boat. There is a tour boat service which makes regular trips. The lighthouse tower is closed.

History: New Point Comfort was originally commissioned by Thomas Jefferson, and located on an island between the Chesapeake and Mobjack Bays. The rich history of this lighthouse is one of my personal favorites to read. Having survived not one but two wars, this battered and beaten 58 ft. sandstone structure is a must see if you are in the area. The boat tour covers much more than the lighthouse and is worth taking.

The story of the building of the lighthouse is quite interesting and even more so when you learn that ancestors of the originally builder who became the keeper, donated a large sum of money to the preservation of the structure hundreds of years later.

During the War of 1812, the British destroyed every aspect of the lighthouse they possibly could. New Point was refurbished and put back into service only to be subjected to another round of destruction in the Civil War, not nearly as bad as the Brits had done.

The tenth oldest American lighthouse still standing in the country and the third oldest on the Chesapeake Bay. It is listed on both the Virginia and National Registers of Historic Places. A pier was installed at the lighthouse in 2016 which would allow contractors to access the site for restoring the stone tower. The restoration project is impressive, follow along right here.

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Old Point Comfort Lighthouse

Old Point Comfort Lighthouse

Where: Hampton

Visitors: The grounds are open and an ideal place for picture taking. The house and tower are closed to the public. There is plenty of parking.

History: The second oldest lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay standing at 54 feet tall. It was first lit in 1802 on the grounds of Fort George, the current Fort Monroe. Built by Elzy Burroughs, the same man who built and tended the New Point Comfort Light, currently being restored. A fog bell was added in 1855.

Situated at the mouths of the James, Nansemond and Elizabeth Rivers, the light was important to safe guidance of incoming cargo. In the early 1900’s, when aeronautics were growing, the roof of one of the station’s buildings was painted in a distinctive pattern and became part of a chain enabling pilots to find their way from Washington D.C. to Norfolk. 

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Cape Charles Lighthouse
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Cape Charles Lighthouse

Where: Smith Island Chesapeake Bay

Visitors: Located on Smith Island, a nature conservancy. Not open to the public. The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. You can view the lighthouse by boat or visit Smith Island linked below.

History: The original Cape Charles Lighthouse was a masonry tower standing 60 feet tall completed in 1828. The rough wet terrain with ocean waves crashing ashore on the marshland took it’s toll on the original and the second lighthouse which toppled into the sea in 1927. The current structure, a cast iron skeleton tower was completed in 1895 at 191 feet tall.

Due to climates and nature, the area is plagued by mosquitoes and bugs making it an undesirable location to visit.

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Wolf Trap Lighthouse Chesapeake Bay
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Wolf Trap Lighthouse

Where: Port Haywood. Chesapeake Bay

Visitors: No. Privately owned and closed to visitors. A great way to view up close is by boat.

History: A caisson tower with its light 52 feet above mean high water. The original lighthouse was first lit in 1821 and even had a fog bell tower. It’s storied past begins with the unfortunate circumstances upon which this lighthouse got it’s name. No doubt, the light has guided many a vessel even though it’s lifetime has been fraught with troubles. Storms carried away the original light with the keeper inside, ghosts stories ran keepers off and in recent years there was even an attempt made to convert it to a bed and breakfast. At this writing Wolf Trap lighthouse is privately owned and back on the market.

Although deemed unsafe, the Coast Guard still maintains the light.

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Thimble Shoal Lighthouse

Where: Hampton

Visitors: No. Accessible by boat only for a closer look. The lighthouse can be seen from a boardwalk at Fort Monroe in Hampton and from beaches in Norfolk.

History: First lit in late 1872, this screwpile lighthouse has seen more than one disaster beginning with a fire in 1880. The structure was restored and back in commission in only 55 days. Years later in 1909, another fire destroyed the lighthouse which was rebuilt as a caisson.

Thimble Shoal was automated in 1964 and then converted to solar in 1986. It is currently privately owned and not open to the public. The U.S. Coast Guard maintains the light.

Jones Point Lighthouse Alexandria Virginia

Jones Point Lighthouse

Where: Old Town Alexandria underneath the Woodrow Wilson Bridge

Visitors: Grounds are open. The lighthouse is closed. Owned and operated by the National Park Service

History: The light was first lit in 1856. Originally built by the Lighthouse Board, this property now is under the watchful eye of the National Park Service. It was deeded to the Mount Vernon Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution somewhere around 1926. They did a complete restoration of both the dwelling and the light and hired a live in caretaker.

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The light was extinguished in 1962 when the Woodrow Wilson Bridge opened and provided a better source of light for ship guiding. In the early 1960’s the DAR deeded the property to the National Park Service on the condition that it be preserved as a park. While the inside is believed to be in shambles, the exterior has been maintained. Around 1990, vandals set fire to the building which was quickly saved. Those vandals were caught and prosecuted.

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Middle Ground Lighthouse

It’s number 10, a bonus because the video is so cool. Privately owned. The lighthouse is located in about 15 feet of water, on the west end of Newport News Middle Ground, Hampton Roads, and Newport News, Virginia.

Read the history of Middle Ground Lighthouse right here.

Even though you may not be able to go inside each of these 9 historic lighthouses, learning about them and visiting the one’s you can creates a nice history adventure. Turn your adventure into Day Trips and take the whole family.

9 Virginia Lighthouses To Visit

  • Old Cape Henry Lighthouse
  • New Cape Henry Lighthouse
  • Assateague Lighthouse
  • New Point Comfort Light
  • Old Point Comfort Lighthouse
  • Cape Charles Lighthouse
  • Wolf Trap Lighthouse
  • Thimble Shoal Lighthouse
  • Jones Point Lighthouse
Historic Virginia Lighthouses

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