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National Lighthouse Day at AMERICA'S First Lighthouse

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

The Cape Henry lighthouse was the first federally funded construction project undertaken by the newly formed United States of America in 1789. Yes, there were earlier lighthouses built on the shores of the American colonies, but during the first congress of the United States, it was the 9th enacted law set in place. The ninth order of business for the great experiment was to build a lighthouse.

Old Cape Henry Lighthouse

7 years later, in 1796, George Washington himself wrote an executive order increasing the salary of the lighthouse keepers from $120 to a whopping $333. A staggering 175% increase! I might imagine more than a few salty sea dogs were lining up for the job, when news of the lucrative lighthouse keeper lifestyle spread across the Pony Express.

Cape Henry lights from shore

That act of congress also transferred the oversight of all the already existing lighthouses in America to the federal government as opposed to the states where they were located. Keeping the shores illuminated must have been important back then.

Old Cape Henry foundation cracks

The Lighthouse Act, as it’s sometimes known, was enacted August 7, 1789. Since the 1989 bicentennial of the moment, that date has marked National Lighthouse Day.

National Lighthouse Day is celebrated across a number of historic lights in the region, but the Cape Henry celebration holds a bit more ceremonial meaning. It helps that there’s two lighthouses to celebrate.

New Cape Henry Light

Almost 100 years after the construction of the Old Cape Henry Light, plans were put in place for what become know as the New Cape Henry Lighthouse. The newer, larger lighthouse operates still as a USCG navigation aid, making it off limits for most of the year. The one day that changes is August 7, when visitors are allowed the opportunity to climb the 400+ steps to the top of both lighthouses.

Dizzying New Cape Henry stairs

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