1791: A New Lighthouse for the New United States is Planned

March 31, 1791

U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton contracted with architect John McComb Jr. to design the first version of Cape Henry Lighthouse on Virginia’s Atlantic shore and at the southern boundary of the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. (At the time, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Lighthouse Establishment was responsible for all lighthouses in the United States.)

The stage was set for the first Cape Henry Lighthouse in 1789. This was when the Virginia General Assembly officially set aside for the federal government a piece of property “lying and being in the County of Princess Anne at the place commonly called the head land of Cape Henry . . . for the purpose of building a lighthouse.” The lighthouse that McComb designed for this location was completed in 1792. This structure has the distinction of being the first lighthouse fully authorized, developed, and placed into service by the federal government; it was also the first construction project of any kind to be carried out under the U.S. Constitution.

Laban Goffigan served as the first keeper of the original Cape Henry Lighthouse. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect who is best known for designing the U.S. Capitol, visited the lighthouse in 1798. He described the structure as “an octangular truncated pyramid of eight sides, rising 90 feet [27.4 meters] to the light.”

For several decades after its debut, the lighthouse proved to be vital to numerous vessels traveling to and from various ports along the Chesapeake Bay. A taller Cape Henry Lighthouse was built about 350 feet (106.7 meters) away from the original structure in 1881 to serve as the new navigational aid for that area. The original lighthouse is still around today, however, and it has been a National Historic Landmark since 1964. In 2002, this lighthouse was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

For more information on the original Cape Henry Lighthouse and its successor, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cape_Henry_Lighthouse.

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