Friday, December 9, 2022

Want to climb the Cape Henry Lighthouse? You’d better do it soon

The Cape Henry Lighthouse, built in 1792, will undergo restoration this fall. (WYDaily/Rami Yoakum)
The Cape Henry Lighthouse, built in 1792, will undergo restoration this fall. (WYDaily/Rami Yoakum)

This summer looks to be the last chance for locals and tourists alike to see the old Cape Henry Lighthouse as it is before a $1.5 million restoration project begins in the fall, bringing much-needed improvements to the 226-year-old structure.

The work will be funded by donations and by federal grants obtained by Preservation Virginia with the assistance of the City of Virginia Beach.

Site coordinator Jessica Kinder said the lighthouse, which was constructed in 1792, will close to climbers this fall, but the shop will remain open and walking tours of historic Cape Henry will be given beginning in July.

“The foundation is about 20 feet deep, and about half of it is exposed due to erosion of the sand,” Kinder said. “The dune is unstable. There are a lot of exposed rocks and bricks.”

Work will be done to the top of the dune the lighthouse sits on, raising it 2 to 3 feet. The dune around the base will be built up with a soil mixture that can be easily compacted and prepared, then a concrete slab will be poured.

The work is expected to take about six months.

Vegetation that has grown around the top of the dune will be removed, improving views of the surrounding area.

Kinder said the part of the foundation that is exposed, which is constructed of Aquia sandstone, will be surrounded by a vertical retaining wall covered with a granite veneer. The new wall won’t touch the old foundation, and the space sill be filled with soil and plants. This will help protect the original foundation, while the new wall will also provide seating for visitors.

The old stairs leading to the lighthouse entrance will also be replaced, and new signage will be mixed in with some of the old. Kinder said a granite slab will be installed, with a map of the lighthouse’s location, other Chesapeake Bay sites of interest, and a compass rose.

The cast iron stairs wind their way up 93 feet to the top of the tower. They will be repainted in their original red. (WYDaily/Rami Yoakum)
The cast iron stairs wind their way up 93 feet to the top of the tower. They will be repainted in their original red. (WYDaily/Rami Yoakum)

A new ventilation system will also be added, she said.

The exposed Aquia sandstone shows signs of significant wear and erosion, and in a few places there’s vandalism, as people have carved names and initials into the soft stone surface.

Kinder said a dig in 2014 found the sandstone that was not exposed was not eroding like the stone above it. The rest of the lighthouse, the 93 feet that was originally above the sand, was built using Rappahannock freestone.

A new drainage system will be added to the stairs that lead from the base of the dune to the lighthouse.

The Cape Henry Lighthouse was the first lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay and the first one constructed by the government of the new United States after the Revolutionary War.

The Cape Henry Lighthouse was operational from 1792 to 1881.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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