Cape Charles, Virginia, is the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula and the northern entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. The first Cape Charles lighthouse was built in 1828 on Smith Island, a small barrier island about 5 miles north of the actual cape. In 1858 the Lighthouse Board began work on a new 150 foot brick tower, three times the height of the 1828 lighthouse. Work was interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War, and the lighthouse was not completed until May 1864. The lighthouse was very similar in design to other early classical brick towers, such as Barnegat Light in New Jersey and Pensacola Light in Florida.
The Board did not take into account the rapid beach erosion in this area. The sea rapidly approached the lighthouse, and after an 1889 storm it looked like the tower could fall at any time. The Board then constructed a third Cape Charles Light, a 191 ft octagonal skeletal tower, 3/4 mile away to the southwest. Beach erosion continued, and the 1864 lighthouse finally collapsed into the sea in 1927. Rubble can still be seen in the surf.
Photos of the lost 1864 lighthouse are quite rare. Shown below is a wonderful photo from the historical collection of the Mariner's Museum in Newport News. Since it is an aerial photo, it was probably taken in the 1920s just a few years before the lighthouse was lost. The buildings to the right of the tower are the original keeper's quarters. The buildings to the left are a U.S. Lifesaving Service station. Also visible is storm warning tower, from which hurricane and gale warning flags were flown. Jetties and a sandy berm have been emplaced in a vain effort to protect the buildings from the approaching sea.
Photo copyright Mariner's Museum, presented under license from the Museum. All rights reserved.
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March 12, 2004. Checked and revised June 15, 2016. Site copyright 2016 Russ Rowlett and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.