|Cape Charles, VA|
Description: Cape Charles sits opposite Cape Henry on the northern entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. An important juncture both for Norfolk-bound sea cargo and railroad passengers of old ferrying between their trains, Cape Charles has seen the construction of three lighthouses. The foundations for the first two lie beneath the sea, victims of the unstable shoreline of Smith Island just off Cape Charles. The third Cape Charles Lighthouse, a fully automated exoskeleton tower, still serves mariners from its island home.
On May 18, 1826, Congress acknowledged the benefits of an aid to navigation at Cape Charles, and two years later, at a cost of $7,398, a rubble stone tower was standing on Smith Island. All accounts agree that this first light was completely inadequate for its intended purpose. The Lighthouse Board’s inspection team noted: “this very important light has at present only ten lamps with twenty one inch reflectors...this light should be increased to a first order one. The tower has an elevation of only 55 feet, placed on a very low coast, giving the light...a range of not more than twelve nautical miles, which it can seldom reach in consequence of the very inferior illuminating apparatus.” The puny light received no respect, even failing to appear in the American Coast Pilot’s navigation charts for the region.
In 1858 the Lighthouse Board upgraded Cape Charles with a first-order lens, but in 1860 the Board decided an entirely new tower was needed, and $35,000 was appropriated for “building the Cape Charles Lighthouse upon a proper site and fitting it with proper illuminating apparatus.” Construction teams succeeded in building up the new tower to 83 of its intended 150 feet, when in 1862 a party of Confederate guerrillas descended on the light station. They inflicted grievous injury to the light, stealing the illuminating apparatus and subjecting construction materials to “indiscriminate pilfering and spoilation.” Progress was halted until 1864, when the North had a strong enough military advantage to ensure the project could be successfully completed. Much of the stolen materials was recovered and Congress provided an additional $20,000 to finish the light, which was first lit on May 7, 1864.
Located a little more than a mile southwest of the old rubble tower and 600 feet from the water, the impressive brick tower was conical in shape and topped with a dark brown lantern room. In 1892, a 25-foot red band was painted around the white tower’s mid-section about 60 feet up from the base; this served to distinguish it from other lighthouses during daylight hours.
It is likely that this tall, banded lighthouse was more cherished than its predecessor, if one can read anything into the expensive and shortsighted attempts to save it from ruin. A six hundred foot buffer zone does sound like a significant distance, but one must keep in mind that the Chesapeake region suffers from extremities of weather and the shoreline erosion that accompanies them. The second Cape Charles tower was essentially doomed the moment its site was selected.
Mother nature gobbled up the beachfront of Smith Island at a rate of about 30 feet a year, so that in 1883 the Lighthouse Board was forced to sound the alarm in its annual report. At that time the tower’s distance from the shore had been cut in half, to three hundred feet, and the keeper’s house was closer still. The Board asked for $15,000 for the construction of protective jetties. Congress granted $10,000 of this, and in 1885 the Board explained “the only practicable method of making the protection is by means of piers or jetties of stone resting upon heavy timber mattresses to prevent too rapid sinking (of the stone) into the sand.” The situation was further complicated as the lighthouse was surrounded by privately owned lands on Smith island. The Board implored Congress to purchase some of the neighboring property, but admitted that “the site was difficult to reach, the project would be expensive (and) that the amount of funds on hand was not sufficient.”
An additional $30,000 was still not enough to induce any contractors to accept the project, so the Board downgraded its goal to the construction of a protective concrete wall with a pile foundation. The bids received for this task were too extravagant for the funds on hand, and in 1886, the Board “decided to invite offers for constructing a jetty and protection wall of brush and stone, to be built of such dimensions as the amount available would warrant”.
In 1888, the Board reported that the new jetty “had been breached, but that the shoreline had stopped eroding.” It asked that the breakwater be extended 500 feet, but in 1892 it was obvious that no amount of walls, jetties or piles could hold off the relentless ocean tides. It was therefore decided to abandon the Cape Charles Lighthouse and construct another one, 3/4 of a mile farther inland.
The first proposal for the new tower called for a conical structure of iron plates, similar in design to the New Cape Henry lighthouse. In the end, though, a bid of $78,200 was accepted to construct exoskeleton towers at both Cape Charles and Hog Island 20 miles to the north. This design had several advantages: it was much cheaper than the Cape Henry model, less susceptible to the punishing winds, and distinct enough from Cape Henry that the two would not be mistaken for each other.
Because the new tower was to be situated in a low and inaccessible marshy region, a long wharf of 1,345 feet had to be connected to a pier in water deep enough to allow boat access. A temporary tramway was also built from the pierhead to the lighthouse grounds to move construction materials. During 1893 and 1894, six sections of the tower, comprising 133 feet of the 191 foot tower, were pieced together at foundries, while four others were erected onto the foundation on-site. By June 30 of 1894, the workers had completed two of the three keeper’s dwellings in addition to their work on the tower, when swarms of mosquitoes spawned in the swampy ground made it too irksome to continue.
Upon their return in November, the workers graded the grounds and filled in nearby marshes. Bermuda grass roots were planted to form an attractive lawn and hold the sand in place, and a modern telephone was also installed. The board noted that “the scourge of the mosquitoes, sand flies, fleas, etc...render existence almost unbearable for nearly half the year,” and promised that “effort has...been made in the design of the station to mitigate the undesirable conditions...”
The station’s lens was installed and tested in June of 1895, however, its full-time service was delayed until mid-August so mariners could be properly informed of its unusual light characteristic. Lt. Frederick Mahan of the Lighthouse Board proposed that all U.S. lighthouse be given a “numerical flash” pattern. The first-order lens at Cape Charles made a complete revolution every thirty seconds, producing nine flashes: four quick flashes followed by a dark interval of three seconds, then five more flashes followed by sixteen seconds of darkness. Cape Charles would thus have a 4-5 pattern, and marines could easily associate these numbers with Cape Charles. This numbering system was likened to a fire alarm bell stroking out the exact numerical identity of a beleaguered building. “By this method,” Mahan maintained, “the light is identified absolutely...” Due to the high cost of these special lenses, only the “4-5” light at Cape Charles, and the “1-4-3” light at Minots Ledge were ever deployed.
The third and final Cape Charles tower is the second tallest lighthouse in the United States. The tower consists of a central iron tube surrounded by eight massive legs. A spiral staircase with 216 treads, enclosed in the tube, leads upwards to the generator room. Ascending seventeen more steps from there one arrives at the watch room, where the lower gallery may be accessed. The tower is painted white, while the upper rooms are a contrasting black.
In 1963, the Fresnel lens was removed and the light was automated. The replacement light, a Vega Rotating Beacon, emits a white flash every five seconds, and is capable of casting its light up to twenty miles out to sea. An Automated Monitoring Control System, installed at Cape Charles Lighthouse and Cape Henry Lighthouse, allowed the lights to be controlled remotely by a Coast Guard station in Portsmouth. This system, however, is no longer operative.
The Fresnel lens from the Cape Charles Lighthouse was donated to the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, where it revolves ceaselessly, emitting its distinctive “4-5” to the thrill of numerous visitors.
Visiting the Cape Charles Lighthouse today is an undertaking that only a truly adventurous and seafaring soul should attempt. One needs to be aware of the tides and familiar with the shifting sandbars. An old pair of shoes or hip waders are recommended while on the island, as one will likely encounter the same marshy conditions that plagued the keepers. This trip is perhaps best left for the Coast Guard, for even their landings on Smith Island are a trial and error mission.
Located on the west side of the southern section of Smith Island, which is just
north of the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
Is it just me or do those World War II lookout towers look like Imperial Walkers?
See our List of Lighthouses in Virginia
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.