|Old Point Comfort, VA|
Description: Old Point Comfort Lighthouse marks the entrance to historic Hampton Roads, an important harbor situated at the mouths of the James, Nansemond and Elizabeth Rivers, and stands on ground which has seen many a fort constructed nearby to defend this import waterway. The tower’s present neighbor, the Civil-War era Fort Monroe, was preceded by colonial Fort George, which in turn was probably preceded by an even earlier fortification. A navigational beacon on Old Point Comfort was active as early as 1775 when John Dams, caretaker of the ruins at Fort George, was paid an annual supplement of 20 pounds to tend a light there. Some historians believe that Native Americans kept wood fires burning at the Point before that for the benefit of Spanish ships during the 16th century.
With the establishment of the United States government and its ensuing lighthouse projects at places like Cape Henry, pressure mounted to build a permanent aid to navigation at Old Point Comfort. An early edition of the American Coast Pilot noted the 1798 law passed by the U.S. Congress that called for a light at Old Point Comfort, and proclaimed: “We wish, for the security of navigation, that the important work may soon be undertaken, for the safety of our mariners.” Between 1800 and 1801 Congress appropriated $5,000 for construction costs, and contracted the services of Elzy Burroughs to complete the octagonal stone structure.
During the War of 1812, the lighthouse temporarily fell into British hands, when the Jack Tars and Royal Marines sailed into the Chesapeake. Frustrated in their efforts to seize the town of Norfolk, the invaders landed at Old Point Comfort and used the tower as an observation post. From there they went on to take and burn Hampton on June 25th, 1813, and then torch Washington D.C. a weeks later on August 14th.
After the war, Old Point Comfort was vastly transformed by both the federal government and private investors. The government erected Forts Monroe and Calhoun, the former on shore and the latter on a man-made island called ‘Rip Raps’ situated in the middle of Hampton Roads. The clever Robert E. Lee, Lieutenant of Engineers, was transferred to Fort Monroe in 1831 and was instrumental during the next three years in helping complete construction on Fort Monroe, which is the largest stone fort ever built in the United States . Entrepreneurs built several resort hotels and otherwise made the area into a vacationer’s paradise for the leading lights of a young American society.
In 1855, the lighthouse received a companion structure; Congress had appropriated $6,000 to build a fog bell tower for navigation in inclement weather. The bronze bell was forty inches around and three feet high, and its ringing could be heard up to three miles away. Soon thereafter a beacon light was added to the station to guide ships docking at Fort Monroe.
While most east coast lighthouses were damaged, destroyed or at least put out of commission during the Civil War, the tower at Old Point Comfort remained undisturbed during the conflict as Fort Monroe remained under Union control throughout the war. An observer perched on the deck of the lighthouse would have seen an impressive procession of historic events during the conflict. President Lincoln once landed at the wharf to Fort Monroe; he had come to witness the Union troops take Norfolk. The legendary battle of the first ironclads, the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, occurred just offshore in Hampton Roads. Finally at the end of the war Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned in an artillery room behind the light station.
After the War Between the States, the lighthouse was in danger of being closed; an 1869 report contended that it no longer played a vital role for navigation. Evidently a number of festive establishments were putting out candlepower that dwarfed the little light. Among these were the Hygeia Hotel, the Sherwood Inn, the Chamberlain Hotel and the Adams Express Company. Given the increasing sophistication of the area, it is likely that the historic and aesthetic value of the light helped save it. Instead of being decommissioned, the lighthouse grounds were vastly improved upon. In 1891, a new keeper’s house, built just south of the tower, replaced the original 1823 dwelling, and various buildings such as a stable, new oil house and iron railings were added as well. The station was hooked up to a modern sewer line in 1901, and the resulting dug-up grounds were substantially re-landscaped. Fifty cart loads of topsoil were spread on the premises and sixty-three varieties of plants and grasses were planted.
Improvements to the station continued to be made in the new century. The oil fuel lanterns were replaced by electric power, and the beam increased in intensity to 3,300 candlepower. With advances in aeronautics the station was designated as an aerial landmark. One of the buildings’ roofs was painted in a distinctive pattern, part of a chain enabling pilots to find their way from Washington D.C. to Norfolk. In 1936, an experimental apparatus was added to control the fog signal. A beam of light was shot every two minutes from nearby Fort Wool, onto a photoelectric cell at Old Point Comfort. If the beam failed to arrive, that meant it had been impeded by rain, fog or snow, and the fog signal was activated.
The problem of competing coastal lights from hotels and attractions was tackled in an innovative manner in 1954. A Coast Guard officer in charge of the lighthouse attached five 250 watt bulbs on poles extending from the guardrails, so that they resembled spokes on a wheel. While this may have made it more noticeable, one writer in The Keeper’s Log lamented that “it made the light look like an amusement park ride...rather than a noble lighthouse.”
Over the years the characteristic of the Old Point Comfort Lighthouse was altered several times. In 1905, the Lighthouse Board reported that “the light was again changed to a fixed red through the entire arc of visibility.” In the 1950s, the ruby-red glass was still in place in the lantern room, but the automated signal showed a mixture of red and white light. The white beam covered 132 degrees of the circle, while red occupied the rest. The pattern was arranged in such a way that if a ship saw red, the crew knew it was on a “danger course.”
Today the lighthouse tower is a freshly painted white, topped by a dull red, domed copper roof and a lightning rod. The structure has four large double-pane windows, with bright green doors, sashes and frames. The ‘eye-catching’ green was rumored to be a contractual error that would soon be corrected, but it has remained for years. A solid steel door guards the base of the lighthouse, alongside a plaque denoting it as a Virginia National Landmark.
The keeper’s dwelling housed the families of two Coast Guardsmen until automation in 1973; presently it is the house of an Army Major. The house was described in an inventory of the station produced by the Army as stylistically eclectic, exhibiting “influences from the Shingle Style of the 1870's, the Stick Style of the 1870's, a touch of Queen Anne, and a soupçon of Eastlake.”
The Old Point Comfort Lighthouse has been privy to events of great military importance, since those it overlooked during the Civil War. Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Great White Fleet’ set sail from Hampton Roads in 1907 for its cruise around the world. On November 14, 1910, the first launching of a plane from a warship took place on the deck of the USS Birmingham in Hampton Roads. Today, the historic lighthouse still watches over the busy waterway frequented by sailboats and aircraft carriers.
Keepers: Paul D. Luke ( - 1819), John Luke (1820 - 1844), Henry C. Bell (1844 - ), William C. King (1849 - ), Frederick W. Jett (1853 - 1857), Amelia Dewees (1857 - 1861), W. C. King (1861 - ), Edwin Krebs (1862 - 1870), William R. Davis (1870 - 1878), John B. Jones (1878 - ).
Located just west of the red brick walls of Fort Monroe, marking the entrance
to Hampton Roads. The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds open, dwelling/tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds open, dwelling/tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
Be sure and visit the Casemate Museum inside Fort Monroe where you can see where Jefferson Davis was held during the Civil War and learn about the fort's interesting history.
See our List of Lighthouses in Virginia
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.