Old Point Comfort Lighthouse, Fort Monroe, Virginia
Old Point Comfort Lighthouse marks the entrance to historic Hampton Roads, an important harbor situated at the mouths of the James, Nansemond and Elizabeth Rivers, and stands on ground which has seen many a fort constructed nearby to defend this import waterway. The tower’s present neighbor, the Civil-War era Fort Monroe, was preceded by colonial Fort George, which in turn was likely preceded by an even earlier fortification. A navigational beacon on Old Point Comfort was active as early as 1775 when John Dams, caretaker of the ruins at Fort George, was paid an annual supplement of 20 pounds to tend a light there. Some historians believe that Native Americans kept wood fires burning at the Point before that for the benefit of Spanish ships during the 16th century.
Wit Burroughs completed most of the work on the lighthouse, which stands 54 feet high, during 1803. The tower possesses a spiral staircase comprised of hand-cut stone, stacked strategically on top of each other. The stairs lead to a ladder that ascends to a trap door, beyond which is the lantern room. Eleven oil lanterns, which consumed 486 gallons of oil each year, were set in fourteen-inch reflectors to produce a light that could be seen from fourteen miles at sea. h the establishment of the United States government and its ensuing lighthouse projects at places like Cape Henry, pressure mounted to build a permanent aid to navigation at Old Point Comfort. An early edition of the American Coast Pilot noted the 1798 law passed by the U.S. Congress that called for a light at Old Point Comfort, and proclaimed: “We wish, for the security of navigation, that the important work may soon be undertaken, for the safety of our mariners.” Between 1800 and 1801 Congress appropriated $5,000 for construction costs, and contracted the services of Elzy Burroughs to complete the octagonal stone structure.
During the War of 1812, the lighthouse temporarily fell into British hands, when the Jack Tars and Royal Marines sailed into the Chesapeake. Frustrated in their efforts to seize the town of Norfolk, the invaders landed at Old Point Comfort and used the tower as an observation post. From there they went on to take and burn Hampton on June 25th, 1813, and then torch Washington D.C. a weeks later on August 14th.
After the war, Old Point Comfort was vastly transformed by both the federal government and private investors. The government erected Forts Monroe and Calhoun, the former on shore and the latter on a man-made island called ‘Rip Raps’ situated in the middle of Hampton Roads. The clever Robert E. Lee, Lieutenant of Engineers, was transferred to Fort Monroe in 1831 and was instrumental during the next three years in helping complete construction on Fort Monroe, which is the largest stone fort ever built in the United States . Entrepreneurs built several resort hotels and otherwise made the area into a vacationer’s paradise for the leading lights of a young American society.
In 1855, the lighthouse received a companion structure; Congress had appropriated $6,000 to build a fog bell tower for navigation in inclement weather. The bronze bell was forty inches around and three feet high, and its ringing could be heard up to three miles away. Soon thereafter a beacon light was added to the station, in order to guide ships docking at Fort Monroe.
While most east coast lighthouses were damaged, destroyed or at least put out of commission during the Civil War, the tower at Old Point Comfort remained undisturbed during the conflict as Fort Monroe remained under Union control throughout the war. An observer perched on the deck of the lighthouse would have seen an impressive procession of historical events during the conflict. President Lincoln once landed at the wharf to Fort Monroe; he had come to witness the Union troops take Norfolk. The legendary battle of the first ironclads, the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, took place just offshore in Hampton Roads. Finally at the end of the war Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned in an artillery room behind the light station.