Before GPS technology and road maps, there were lighthouses, shining beacons guiding seafarers to their neck of the woods. Though most lighthouses are no longer in operation, they're a huge part of America's history and light up the nation's landscape – in more ways than one.
"Lighthouses are not only historic treasures, but they are also a source of inspiration and happiness for so many people," said Bob Trapani, American Lighthouse Foundation Executive Director.
With National Lighthouse Day on Aug. 7, here's a "spotlight" on some of Virginia's most must-see lighthouses found throughout the commonwealth's picturesque coast. Even though Michigan has the most lighthouses – an impressive total of 129 spanning the Great Lakes Region, according to government data – the ones that dot Virginia's scenery are a sight for sore eyes.
Located on the sands of Virginia Beach, the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse is one of more impressive structures you'll ever see, built from scratch way back in 1792. In addition to being the third oldest lighthouse in the country, it's the first lighthouse entirely funded by the U.S. government, given the go ahead by none other than America's first president and founding father George Washington. Though it remains in place, the lighthouse was decommissioned approximately 100 years after it was completed, replaced by the new Cape Henry Lighthouse that's roughly a football field away from the original. The newer, taller version has been operated by the U.S. Coast Guard – which recently celebrated its 226th birthday – since the late 1930s.
Another lighthouse maintained by the USCG is located at Assateague Island, transferred to the country's longest uninterrupted seagoing branch of the military back in 2004. Originally constructed in 1833 and then upgraded a year before the Civil War began, the Assateague Lighthouse is roughly 145 feet high and 27 feet wide. Its towering height makes it much easier for sea goers to spot, as it's one of the few lighthouses in the U.S. that's still in operation. Not surprisingly, it's also a federal landmark, added to the National Register of Historic Places several years ago.
Though lighthouses don't necessarily have to be adjacent to bodies of water, most are, indeed, found in or around the ocean. But there's only one a handful in the state where its homebase is a river. Located in Alexandria, the Jones Point Lighthouse in Jones Point Park is the last riverine lighthouse in the commonwealth, straddling the Potomac. Built in 1856, the lighthouse didn't remain active for very long relative to others, going out of operation roughly 70 years later. What also made it somewhat distinctive is the fact that it doubles as a house. In fact, the first lighthouse keeper, Benjamin Greenwood, dwelled in the colonial confines with his wife and 11 children!
Like a number of its contemporaries, the Old Point Comfort Lighthouse on Chesapeake Bay traces back to the Revolutionary era, commissioned by none other than Virginia native and the nation's third president Thomas Jefferson. Old Point Comfort also had a prominent role in the Civil War as well, owned and operated by the Union and in the vicinity of several battles. Presently, it's maintained by the Coast Guard. Undeniably a tourist attraction for Civil War buffs, the Old Point Comfort Lighthouse can only be observed from afar, not open to the public.
No Virginia lighthouse list is complete without the one that stands erect along the shores of Cape Charles, perhaps one of the most aesthetically pleasing places all along the East Coast. The tower itself, though, took a while before it got off the ground. For example, even though the station where it was set to be built was established in late 18th century, it wasn't until well into the 19th – 1828, to be precise – that it was completed. And even then, the light that the tower emitted was hard to spot among mariners looking for guidance. The labor of love eventually had to be shuttered due to beach erosion, but it was later rebuilt, restored, and put to use more effectively shortly thereafter.
This month, take a timeout and look to the sky to take in Virginia's truly towering history.