by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn
Lighthouses are built to endure the often brutal natural environments they are intended to mark, but over time take a beating from the elements. Maintaining these structures has in many instances become a shared responsibility, incorporating planning, funding and effort from various levels of government, private organizations and individuals.
At a unique site, located at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in Virginia Beach, Virginia, a current preservation effort at the New Cape Henry Lighthouse reflects the U.S. Coast Guard’s responsibility for maintaining the structure. A paint job and other improvements should enhance the aesthetic appeal of the site, which draws approximately 80,000 visitors annually.
The preservation project includes major maintenance and repair of several structures at the site, including three Coast Guard-owned housing units and six auxiliary buildings in addition to the actual lighthouse.
Construction specific to the New Cape Henry Lighthouse replaced and repaired historic wood, cast iron and masonry elements to improve structural integrity, and provided new finishes to restore the lighthouse to its former glory.
Coast Guard construction representative Herky Matthews has supervised the preservation since it began in May 2016. Fascinated by the site’s history and the details of its original construction, the Coast Guard could not have picked a better person for the job.
“A job like this requires we follow historical preservation standards which means I get to learn a lot about the original structure and see firsthand the intricacies that went into building it,” said Matthews. “It’s neat to get to be a part of preserving a site with so much history.”
Matthews has worked closely with Joseph Scarfone, a restoration foreman with International Chimney Corporation who leads the preservation team. A bricklayer by trade, Scarfone said the New Cape Henry Lighthouse is unique in that it’s made of cast iron. Other than that, he said the job has been business as usual for his team.
“Wind and rain are some of the most significant challenges we face, which is typical of any lighthouse job,” said Scarfone. “The view we have while working out here is beautiful. I enjoy watching the ships go in and out of the bay.”
To truly appreciate the Cape Henry Lighthouses that mark the southernmost entrance to Chesapeake Bay, it’s important to consider the significance of the bay itself.
Any ship heading to Washington D.C., Baltimore or Norfolk must enter the bay. Consistently finding the entrance, in the dark and in inclement weather, would not have been possible for early American mariners without help from navigational aids. The original Cape Henry Lighthouse was built out of necessity after more than 50 vessels fell victim to shoals in the area.
“For the past several centuries, the strategic placement of the Cape Henry Light(s), Bodie Island Light and Cape Hatteras Light each played a prominent role in keeping mariners safe and away from the infamous Diamond Shoals as they entered the Graveyard of the Atlantic where the treacherous Gulf Steam and Labrador Currents converge along the Mid-Atlantic states,” said Chris Scraba, deputy chief of the waterways management branch for the 5th Coast Guard District in Portsmouth. “The Cape Henry Lighthouses specifically have served for many years to protect and guide vessels entering and leaving the Chesapeake Bay.”
The original Cape Henry Lighthouse was the first construction project authorized by the new United States, and was completed in October 1792 at a cost of about $17,700. Today the old Cape Henry Lighthouse is owned and operated by Preservation Virginia, a private non-profit organization and statewide historic preservation group. In the late 1870s, after concerns arose about the old lighthouse’s stability, construction of the second lighthouse commenced. The second Cape Henry Lighthouse was completed in 1881 and sits approximately 350 feet from the old lighthouse. Though it was automated in 1984, the Coast Guard is still responsible for making sure it functions properly.
Since the inception of electronic charting systems and GPS for modern navigation, many mariners no longer rely upon these lighthouses, nor the network of coastal navigational aids that guided mariners for centuries. “Although, some would call them outdated technology, in the eyes of many seasoned mariners, they still provide a useful indication of location while navigating into ports or along shoals,” said Scraba. “When GPS and/or electronic computer charting fails while inbound from sea, it is always reassuring to know the Coast Guard maintains an active constellation of fixed ranges, moored buoys and lighthouses to provide physical aids to navigation to assist mariners in determining their position.”
The Coast Guard continues to operate many historical lighthouses as active aids to navigation. However, due to the cost of these lights, the Coast Guard has converted many to solar power to save on maintenance and electricity costs, especially offshore or in isolated locations that require expensive underwater cables. “The cost to replace an existing submarine cable at one of our Mid-Atlantic lighthouses is $2-3 million and the cost to modernize that same light with solar panels and an LED optic is only $4,000-$8,000 and requires less maintenance,” said Scraba.
In order to maintain a lighthouse’s iconic historical structure, the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 provides for the transfer of lighthouse structures to local governments and private non-profit groups such as historical and preservation societies, while the Coast Guard continues to maintain lamps and lenses that are still operational or have been converted to LEDs.
“Unfortunately, the Coast Guard does not have the resources nor the manpower to open the lighthouse to the public or to staff it with tour guides,” said Capt. Richard Wester, commander, Coast Guard Sector Hampton Roads. “But the New Cape Henry Lighthouse is a great example of our history alive today. The lighthouse and its keepers were part of the U.S. Lighthouse Service until it merged with the Coast Guard in 1939, and we have been proudly maintaining the major aid to navigation and surrounding structures ever since.”
Though the New Cape Henry Lighthouse is not open to the public, visitors at the Old Lighthouse will enjoy improved views of the structure. With its new coat of paint almost complete, the lighthouse looks fantastic.