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Cape Charles Lighthouse, Smith Island and Chesapeake Bay, circa 1890


Materials in the Library of Virginia’s collections contain historical terms, phrases, and images that are offensive to modern readers. These include demeaning and dehumanizing references to race, ethnicity, and nationality; enslaved or free status; physical and mental ability; and gender and sexual orientation. 


A lighthouse is a tower, building, or other type of structure designed to emit light from a system of lamps and lenses. They serve as beacons for navigational aid for maritime pilots at sea or on inland waterways. Lighthouses mark dangerous coastlines, hazardous shoals, reefs, and rocks, and allow for access to safe entries into harbors. Lighthouses have been used for thousands of years and the oldest one still standing dates to the 1st century C.E. Known as the Tower of Hercules, it is located at La Coruna harbor, in northern Spain, and has a cornerstone indicating that it was built using an ancient Phoenician design and was built to honor the Roman God, Mars.

Lighthouses, like the Cape Charles Lighthouse, have a long history of being used to guide mariners along the coastal waterways up and down the east coast of the United States. Three lighthouses have provided sailors safe entrance to the southernmost harbor on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The first lighthouse at Cape Charles was a 55-foot masonry tower that was in use by 1828. Shortly after going into operation, the lighthouse was deemed too low in height and had poor visibility from the Chesapeake Bay. As the location is important to mariners and has shallow areas which could easily set a boat aground, it was decided a new lighthouse would be needed. Erosion also took a toll on the 1828 structure, and it became unsafe for regular use. In 1864, the second lighthouse was built. Located about a mile southwest from the original lighthouse, it was built 600 feet from the shoreline and tidal areas to help prevent erosion damage to the structure. The 150-foot-tall tower also had better visibility and was painted white with a brown lantern room to make it stand out from its surroundings. In 1892, a 25-foot red band was painted 60 feet from the base and around the middle of the tower to make it more visible during the day as shipping traffic increased. By the late 1890s, the lighthouse was under threat from tidal erosion. Jetties of sand and other materials were built into the bay, but the jetties failed and the lighthouse ended up 300 feet from the water with the shoreline eroding at a rate of 37 feet per year. After having served as an observation tower during World War I the second Cape Charles Lighthouse finally toppled into the ocean on July 2, 1927.

In 1895, the current Cape Charles lighthouse wss built on a marsh three-quarters of a mile inland. The design was dramatically different. The tower consists of a central iron tube surrounded by eight massive legs. A central spiral staircase of 216 steps leads to the generator room. Above the generator room is the watch room. The tower is painted white while the upper rooms are painted black. During World War II, three cement observation towers were constructed near the lighthouse to look for any German U-boats that might approach the Virginia coastline.

A brush fire on July 13, 2000, burned down the 1895 head keeper's dwelling, a wood outbuilding, and a storage shed. The two assistant keepers' dwellings were torn down about 1960, prior to automation of the lighthouse, but the head keeper's house, along with an oil house and generator building, were taken over by The Nature Conservancy in 1995. Although the Cape Charles lighthouse is visible from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, its remote location on a marshy barrier island makes it inaccessible except by shallow draft boat. It sits on land that is part of a nature preserve and is not open to the public. No longer maintained by the Coast Guard, the lighthouse is in poor condition. The number of operational lighthouses in the United States has declined as a result of maintenance expenses and with the advent of cheaper, more sophisticated and effective electronic navigational systems.

Citation: Cape Charles Light, 1890. Eastern Shore Public Library (Accomack, VA.). Eastern Shore Virginia Room.

Image is available through the Library of Viriginia online catalog.


Social Studies: VS.1, VS.8, VS.10, USII.3, VUS.8, CE.1, COVT.1

Earth Science: ES.1, ES.10

Physics: PH.1, PH. 4

Suggested Questions

Preview Activity

Look at It: Look at the photograph, why might a lighthouse be necessary?  What function do they serve?

Post Activities

STEM STAT: The Cape Charles lighthouse was rebuilt twice due to erosion issues. What factors might have been considered when it was built? How would have modern technology made the risk assessment easier and more accurate. Provide an example.

Current Connection: The abundance of natural resources found in the Eastern Shore region is still a factor in economic and public policy decisions today. Identify three competing interests from the perspectives of an environmentalist who wants to protect natural resources and from those in industries seeking to use the natural resources.  

STEM STAT: The current Cape Charles Lighthouse is not easily accessed and lies within a nature preserve. How does the limited accessibility help preserve the environment? Why is important to protect watershed areas such as the low-lying marsh areas found along the Eastern Shore?