VIRGINIA BEACH — Anyone who has been to Fort Story to climb the 226-year-old Cape Henry Lighthouse or stand on the spot where 411 years ago Englishmen made history with their “first landing” knows that getting to those locations can be just a tiny bit tricky.
As one might expect, allowing public access to historic sites of national significance is of the utmost importance. But when they’re located inside an active military installation, which also happens to be used for special warfare training activities, providing that access can be a delicate balancing act.
To make access to those important heritage sites easier and safer for everyone, the City of Virginia Beach is working with Joint Expeditionary Base Command and Preservation Virginia — which operates the lighthouse — in establishing a secure shuttle service that would carry visitors from a designated parking area onto the base.
“This is in reaction to new security measures being implemented by the Department of Defense,” said Brian Solis, transportation planning manager for the city. “And access is important to us from a tourism standpoint and a heritage standpoint. There’s a lot of history there.”
Indeed there is: On the morning of April 26, 1607 after four months at sea, the white sails of three English ships appeared off the coast of Cape Henry and a landing party eventually came ashore just west of the cape. The Rev. Robert Hunt offered thanks for their safe and successful voyage across the Atlantic Ocean and Capt. Christopher Newport led a party on a short exploration of the area. Later they would return to their ships and sail to what would become the Jamestown Settlement.
In 1792 a lighthouse was completed near that first landing site and in 1881 another was added to replace the old one. By 1902 a small community had sprung up in the area, but in 1914 the Virginia General Assembly gave the land to the Army as a site for fortifications. The Cape Henry Military Reservation became Fort Story in 1916, when it was named after Major Gen. John Patton Story, a renowned artillery commander.
Solis said traditionally, those wishing to visit the historic sites that are within Fort Story must enter through Gate 8 at the 89th Street entrance to the base.
There, vehicles are subject to being searched by military security personnel. Before entering the base civilians are directed to go nowhere except the historic locations, but once inside the gates there’s no guarantee they don’t drive into areas they’re not supposed — unintentionally or otherwise.
The new plan, said Scott Mohr, public affairs officer for Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, would provide a dedicated parking area outside of the gate and an area where civilian visitors would load onto a bus or van and be transported to the lighthouse and other sites, but nowhere else.
“Security is always our first concern,” Mohr said. “We have an agreement in place allowing public access to these historic sites. They’re iconic symbols and important to both the city and to visitors.”
He said the shuttle process should significantly reduce the amount of time visitors spend at the gate. Before boarding the shuttle they’ll likely need to show an ID and perhaps go through a wanding procedure of some sort before boarding.
Mohr said the system the Navy uses in operating bus tours of the Norfolk Naval Station is very efficient and he hopes this will be similarly successful and well-received.
Solis said the city has been looking at grants that would not only provide for the vehicles to be used as shuttles, but that could also fund maintenance and fuel. Responsibility for providing drivers for the vehicles would go to Preservation Virginia.
“The DOD is pushing hard for this,” he said.