The 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 probably 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.
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 historic 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, occurred 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.
After the War Between the States, the lighthouse was in danger of being closed; an 1869 report contended that it no longer played a vital role for navigation. Evidently a number of festive establishments were putting out candlepower that dwarfed the little light. Among these were the Hygeia Hotel, the Sherwood Inn, the Chamberlain Hotel and the Adams Express Company. Given the increasing sophistication of the area, it is likely that the historic and aesthetic value of the light helped save it. Instead of being decommissioned, the lighthouse grounds were vastly improved upon. In 1891, a new keeper’s house, built just south of the tower, replaced the original 1823 dwelling, and various buildings such as a stable, new oil house and iron railings were added as well. The station was hooked up to a modern sewer line in 1901, and the resulting dug-up grounds were substantially re-landscaped. Fifty cart loads of topsoil were spread on the premises and sixty-three varieties of plants and grasses were planted.
Improvements to the station continued to be made in the new century. The oil fuel lanterns were replaced by electric power, and the beam increased in intensity to 3,300 candlepower. With advances in aeronautics the station was designated as an aerial landmark. One of the buildings’ roofs was painted in a distinctive pattern, part of a chain enabling pilots to find their way from Washington D.C. to Norfolk. In 1936, an experimental apparatus was added to control the fog signal. A beam of light was shot every two minutes from nearby Fort Wool, onto a photoelectric cell at Old Point Comfort. If the beam failed to arrive, that meant it had been impeded by rain, fog or snow, and the fog signal was activated.
The problem of competing coastal lights from hotels and attractions was tackled in an innovative manner in 1954. A Coast Guard officer in charge of the lighthouse attached five 250 watt bulbs on poles extending from the guardrails, so that they resembled spokes on a wheel. While this may have made it more noticeable, one writer in The Keeper’s Log lamented that “it made the light look like an amusement park ride...rather than a noble lighthouse.”
Over the years the characteristic of the Old Point Comfort Lighthouse was altered several times. In 1905, the Lighthouse Board reported that “the light was again changed to a fixed red through the entire arc of visibility.” In the 1950s, the ruby-red glass was still in place in the lantern room, but the automated signal showed a mixture of red and white light. The white beam covered 132 degrees of the circle, while red occupied the rest. The pattern was arranged in such a way that if a ship saw red, the crew knew it was on a “danger course.”
Today the lighthouse tower is a freshly painted white, topped by a dull red, domed copper roof and a lightning rod. The structure has four large double-paned windows, with bright green doors, sashes and frames. The ‘eye-catching’ green was rumored to be a contractual error that would soon be corrected, but it has remained for years. A solid steel door guards the base of the lighthouse, alongside a plaque denoting it as a Virginia National Landmark.
The Old Point Comfort Lighthouse has been privy to events of great military importance, since those it overlooked during the Civil War. Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Great White Fleet’ set sail from Hampton Roads in 1907 for its cruise around the world. On November 14, 1910, the first launching of a plane from a warship took place on the deck of the USS Birmingham in Hampton Roads. Today, the historic lighthouse still watches over the busy waterway frequented by sailboats and aircraft carriers.