“You haven’t been here before.” It was a statement more than a question, the park ranger at First Landing State Park responding to our inquiry of where in the park the landing actually occurred. “You want to go back out to Shore Drive, hang a left, go about 4 miles to Atlantic Ave, then make another left. Good luck!”
We pulled back onto US 60 and headed east, and as I looked at a map I commented that from this end we would also be able to see the Cape Henry lighthouse – bonus! But immediately after making the turn onto Atlantic we got our first inkling that this wouldn’t be just a casual tourist experience; a uniformed officer stepped out of his guard booth, leaned down to see the boys in the backseat, and then asked us for license and registration.
Turns out the actual site of the “first landing” (and the Cape Henry lighthouse) is within the Little Creek/Fort Story Joint Expeditionary Base, a military installation. We were asked if we had any weapons/alcohol/other stuff we thankfully didn’t have in the car, after which we were directed to pull forward for a ‘secondary search.’ At this point I was ready to turn around – I didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into! – but Roberts said we might as well see what happens.
Well, what happened was we were told we can’t visit the base, as we had expired car tags! Luckily it was just a misunderstanding, and after we had shown proof that everything was in order we stepped out of the car, popped the hood and the trunk, stepped aside as two armed officers examined our papers and the scandalous mess in the trunk that comes with four days on the road, and probably got a more intense background check done than we would get if buying a firearm in South Carolina. The kids were instructed to stay in the car, allowing the stale cheerios littering their car seats to go undetected.
Once our visit had been approved we were handed an access pass and given over a dozen instructions on what we were/were not allowed to do in the 4 hours on Atlantic Avenue until our pass expired. Basically, we could visit the lighthouses and the first landing site – do anything else and I had no doubt we would be in trouble! It’s all very reasonable as they don’t want civilians taking pictures of the installation or poking around a sensitive area; however it is intimidating, especially if you haven’t done your research before visiting and don’t know what you’re in for! Expert tip: make sure your license plate tags are up to date and leave the wine coolers at home.
The Cape Henry Lighthouse is managed by Preservation Virginia, and the little Visitor Center at the base next to the parking lot is also the entrance to the lighthouse. There is a fee of $8/adult and $6/student to climb to the top, and all visitors must be 42” or taller and able to climb the steps without assistance. Roberts volunteered to wait with Vilis while the boys and I started our ascent.
Registered as a National Historic Landmark, the lighthouse was the first construction project authorized by the very first Congress, and cost a total of $17,700. President George Washington personally reviewed bids and selected John McCombs, a NY bricklayer, as contractor. The location at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay had been strategically important to the British for many years as a trade route and military site, and although there had been talk of constructing a lighthouse on Cape Henry, it wasn’t until 1792 that the project was finally completed. Although damaged in the Civil War, service was eventually restored and continued until 1881 when it was replaced by the modern lighthouse which is still in use today.
Preservation Virginia acquired the Cape Henry Lighthouse in 1930 when Congress deeded them the house and 1.77 acres of surrounding land to preserve it and make it accessible to the public. Over the years the lighthouse and its surroundings have undergone multiple restorations including repairing the lantern after damage from Hurricane Barbara in 1953, repairing the original Aquia sandstone, and restoring the surrounding dunes. The Aquia sandstone that was used in the construction had special significance, as it came from the same Virginia quarries that provided stone for Mount Vernon, the U.S. Capitol and the White House.
A few facts… The lighthouse has thicker walls at the bottom than at the top, and is octagonal, which makes it strong enough to withstand the elements. When lit, the beacon could be seen 15 miles away; it was fueled by whale oil and later kerosene. The lighthouse weighs about 6,000 tons. When it was originally constructed it was about 500 yards from the shore; today it is only about 250.
Across the street is the New Cape Henry lighthouse, currently undergoing some preservation work. It is also octagonal, and stands 164 feet tall.
So far our Virginia trip had been all about Revolutionary War, but the lighthouse introduced us to the War of 1812. A British naval blockade along much of the US coast had disrupted trade and interfered with commerce, and on February 4, 1813 the blockade was extended to the Chesapeake Bay. To prevent British ships from using it to aid navigation, the light was extinguished. Soon after, the British attacked the lighthouse, and British scouting parties often visited the area for fresh water. On July 14th Capt. Richard Lawson captured 20 British marines nearby.
Of course, as the mouth to the Chesapeake, the shores were also the scene of noteworthy events during the Revolutionary War. Here French Navy Admiral de Grasse first engaged the British navy, and when Admiral Graves chose to head back to NY for repairs instead of following De Grasse to the Chesapeake, he left Cornwallis with no option but to surrender at Yorktown.
However, Cape Henry’s main significance in history might be as the site of the ‘first landing’. On April 26, 1607 three small ships approached the Chesapeake Bay from the southeast and made their landfall on Cape Henry. The Virginia Company Expedition had set sail from England in December of the previous year, and upon reaching this very spot in what is present day Virginia they planted a cross and named the spot Cape Henry, in honor of the oldest son of King James 1. After a few more days of exploration they anchored at Cape Comfort, moving up the James River until settling at Jamestown on May 13, 1607. In 1935 the Daughters of the American Colonists erected a memorial cross here.
Our visit to Cape Henry luckily came to a close without any more surprises; we were able to visit all the sites in the allotted time and left the military base without further excitement. Now to visit the other ‘First Landing’!
|Egg casings of the lightning whelk had washed ashore|