Situated strategically at the mouths of the James, Nansemond, and Elizabeth Rivers, Old Point Comfort Lighthouse serves as a historic entrance to Hampton Roads. The location itself is steeped in history, with records dating back to the 16th century indicating that Native Americans kept wood fires burning at the point to guide Spanish ships.
The lighthouse stands tall on the southern edge of Old Point Comfort, a peninsula originally called “Cape Comfort” by Christopher Newport’s explorers in 1607. It played a crucial role in protecting the old port of Hampton, and with the construction of nearby Fort Monroe, it became an integral part of the Union’s defense during the Civil War. Today, it serves as a reminder of the rich history and importance of the Hampton Roads region.
The History of Old Point Comfort Lighthouse
Congress recognized the importance of Old Point Comfort Lighthouse in 1800 and appropriated $5,000 to construct the octagonal stone structure. The services of Elzy Burroughs were contracted, and he completed most of the work in 1803. The tower stands tall at 54 feet, with a spiral staircase built of carefully stacked hand-cut stone. Eleven oil lanterns were used to produce a light that could be seen from up to 14 miles at sea, each consuming 486 gallons of oil annually.
During the War of 1812, British forces temporarily occupied the lighthouse and it served as an observation post. In 1855, Congress further recognized the importance of Old Point Comfort by appropriating $6,000 to construct a fog bell tower to guide ships during inclement weather. The bronze bell, measuring 40 inches around and three feet high, could be heard from up to three miles away. A beacon light was also added to guide ships docking near Fort Monroe.
As one of the oldest lighthouses in the United States, the Old Point Comfort Lighthouse has played a crucial role in maritime history. President Thomas Jefferson recognized its importance and built the original wooden lighthouse in 1802. The lighthouse was replaced with a brick tower in 1823, which still stands today. During the Civil War, it served as a guiding light for Union ships navigating through Confederate-laid minefields.
The Old Point Comfort Lighthouse Today
Despite the danger of closure after the Civil War, the Old Point Comfort Lighthouse was saved thanks to its historic and aesthetic value. Today, it is registered as a Virginia National Landmark and remains a welcoming beacon to everyone passing by. Visitors can stroll around the lighthouse’s exterior or enjoy a picnic near its base.
It is part of the Fort Monroe National Monument and is open to the public for tours. The lighthouse serves as a testament to the importance of maritime commerce and the critical role of lighthouses in ensuring safe navigation for ships.