Cape Charles Light and towers VA1
Cape Charles Light on Smith Island at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. 

Lighthouses of Northampton County
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Northampton County Lighthouses


Travelling across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT) to or from the Eastern Shore of Virginia, the Cape Charles Light can be seen to the east standing sentinel on Smith Island at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. On the opposite shore to the south stands the Cape Henry Light in Virginia Beach. These two lighthouses guide mariners from the Atlantic Ocean into the Chesapeake Bay.

Four lighthouses have served Northampton County:
On the seaside, Cape Charles/Smith Island Light and Hog Island Light; on the bayside, Cherrystone Bar Lighthouse and Old Plantation Flats Lighthouse which has been replicated for historical decorative purposes at Bay Creek Golf Resort & Club in Cape Charles, Virginia.

Of the four lighthouses in Northampton County, Virginia only Cape Charles/Smith Island light remains an active beacon.

Water and wind can be a destructive force. Lighthouses were constantly in need of repair or succumbed to the waves altogether over time. Lighthouse building materials progressed to be more formidable against the onslaught of tide and time. Lighthouse keepers watched over the beacon to make sure the lamps were in good working order but in the end even the keepers and their families needed to move to safer shores. Eventually lighthouses became automated.

The Working Beacon
Cape Charles/Smith Island Light 

Cape Charles Lighthouse on Smith Island, VA 

The Cape Charles Light we see standing today on Smith Island guiding mariners into the Chesapeake Bay was built in 1895. This cast iron, exoskeleton lighthouse on Smith Island is the second tallest in the United States, standing at 191 feet tall. It is the third lighthouse to be built on Smith Island. The first two were destroyed in Confederate raids and erosion.
According to, the first Cape Charles lighthouse was built in 1828 and was a "rubblestone tower, constructed at a cost of $7,399,...standing off the cape. The tower stood fifty-five feet tall and in 1838 was exhibiting a flashing light produced by an array of fifteen lamps set in fifteen-inch reflectors."  

For a detailed history of the Cape Charles Lighthouse please see Cape Charles Light Station written by Wayne Wheeler; Reprinted from the U. S. Lighthouse Society’s The Keeper’s Log – Summer, 2005 PDF

2nd CC Light The 2nd Cape Charles Lighthouse built in 1864 

If you visit the historical exhibit in the Northampton County administration building, you will come across this gem of a photograph.
The caption under the display reads:

"The second Cape Charles lighthouse, Smith Island, as it was seen in 1885. This lighthouse was completed in 1864, its construction delayed by a destructive Confederate raid led by the notorious John Yeats Beall in August of 1863. It was condemned in 1927. The site has now been washed away, but remains of the lighthouse base can be seen at low tide. In 1892, a third Cape Charles lighthouse was constructed nearby and still stands, though the keeper's house was destroyed by fire. Cape Charles Light and Cape Henry Light still mark the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay as originally intended." 
Cape Charles Historical Society
Courtesy of Mariners Museum

(Editor's note: The land for the  3rd lighthouse was obtained in 1892 but the tower was not complete until 1895.) 

Photo: The 1864 lighthouse with dwellings as seen in 1885. 

1st Cape Charles Light About the photo:  "The second Cape Charles tower looking toward Chesapeake Bay. This photo shows the addition of the red band which was painted around the middle of the tower in 1892. This photo was taken some time after August 15, 1895, when the new tower went into operation and before the old tower was destroyed. Note the lens has been removed from the lantern room. A three-masted vessel can be seen in the background at the new pier."
Photograph courtesy National Archives

In 1892 it was determined a new light tower would be built to replace the crumbling 2nd lighthouse. In that same year, the Lighthouse Board inspected the lighthouse on Smith Island and reported, “In June a red band, 25 feet wide, was painted around the tower about 60 feet above
the base, that mariners may more readily distinguish the tower in the daytime . . . The
station requires general repairs, which, however, will not be made at present, in view of the projected removal of the station to a new site. The plan of the new tower which is to be erected about 3/4 of a mile from the present light-house, which is endangered by the steady advance of the sea line, has been determined upon and requisite drawings and specifications are now being made."  -from Cape Charles Light Station by Wayne Wheeler. 

Aerial of 3rd CC Light 1925The second lighthouse stood abandoned not far from the the iron tower, gradually being eroded by the forces of Nature. 
"After having been used as an observation tower during World War I, the second Cape Charles Lighthouse finally toppled into the ocean on July 2, 1927. The lights at Cape Charles and Hog Island were electrified in 1933, completing the electrification of all coastal lights in the fifth lighthouse district."  -from

Third lighthouse with dwellings in 1925
Photograph courtesy National Archives

"The original lens, which floated on a mercury bath, was removed in 1963. It was replaced by a DCB 2-24 aero-beacon, a standard optic 
used by the Coast Guard in major seacoast lighthouses. The lens was given to the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, VA where it is presently on display, revolving and sending out its unusual group flashing characteristic of 4 – 5. " -from Cape Charles Light Station 

A brush fire on July 13, 2000, destroyed the 1895 keeper’s quarters at Cape Charles Light on Smith Island, Virginia. There was only minor damage to the tower. 

For more information about maritime history of the Hampton Roads area please visit the Mariners Museum at 100 MUSEUM DR NEWPORT NEWS, VA 23606 or their website: 


On the Bayside

Cape Charles "Light" er...Water Tower

Cape Charles Water TowerRide into Cape Charles on Stone Road and you’ll see an iconic structure that looks like a lighthouse but it’s actually a water tower. The Cape Charles water tower was designed in 1992 and won a national award from the Steel Plate Fabricators Association for its "aesthetic and functional value."  According to the self-guided walking tour brochure, A Walking Tour of Historic Cape Charles, Virginia, “This 1992 award-winning design was patterned after the 1893 Cape Charles Light House on Smith Island. The tank holds 300,000 gallons of water and sits 217 feet above the ground.” 

In 1993, an article appeared in the local newspaper that celebrated the Cape Charles water tower's design award: 

Cape Charles Lighthouse wins national design award 

"Lighthouses have been guiding mariners safely into port for centuries. Although Cape Charles’ new replica of a lighthouse has been known to steer a few boaters back to harbor, townsfolk hope the lighthouse replica will also lure more shoppers and vacationers to town.
The town’s new 300,000 gallon water tower-designed to imitate a coastal lighthouse-has won a national award from the Steel Plate Fabricators Association for its aesthetic and functional value.

The tower is one phase of the town’s $3.2 million improvements to its water system. Improvements also included increased capacity and new water pipes. When Brown & Root, Inc. begins construction on its planned residential and resort development in Cape Charles, it will further expand the system, Town Manager Dick Barton said.

Wade D. Newman, executive director of the Chicago fabricators association that judges tanks, said entries are evaluated on both design and artistic merit- on their good looks and durability.
“We look for uniqueness,” Newman said. “The unique design was remarkable about this one.”
The water tower was modeled after the Smith Island lighthouse, built in 1832 for $7,398. Although the original lighthouse was wooden, it was replaced by a brick tower in 1872 and again 20 years later by a metal frame lighthouse.

The water tower which stands nearly 200 feet, costs $420,000 to build. Brown & Root paid $106,000 for the lighthouse design: the town spent another $14,000. The remainder for the expenditure was for the construction and was paid for by the town. The town council is also considering fixing a light atop the tower. Estimates made about a year ago put the cost of the light around $20,000. According to a council member, however, the light was not a top priority. "

This article can be viewed in current news media,  Eastern Shore First 25 Years Ago section 1993 page 50 "Cape Charles Light Wins National Design Award" 

Cape Charles Harbor and Water Tower in background

Cape Charles Water Tower and Cape Charles Harbor.
Photos by Richard Wiseman

Aside from the water tower, two actual lighthouses served the Cape Charles area; Old Plantation Flats and Cherry Stone Bar. Both of these lighthouses are long gone or "under the bar" as they say in maritime phrasing. The history of these lighthouses lives on through light keepers logs and local stories. Old Plantation Flats has been replicated in precise detail for historical purposes and serves as an interesting landmark at Bay Creek Golf Resort. 

Old Plantation Flats Light

Old Plantation Flats Lighthouse
Old Plantation Flats Lighthouse, Cape Charles, VA
Photo courtesy National Archives:

The United States Lighthouse Society, Chesapeake Chapter tells the history of this lighthouse.
"Old Plantation Flats Lighthouse was built in 1886 as a white rectangular screwpile with a tower on the roof. The lighthouse was located at the entrance to the channel leading to Cape Charles, Virginia and Old Plantation Creek. The lighthouse had an unusual foundation construction with a combination of screwpile and concrete pylons. 

The lighthouse was damaged in 1893 by ice flows and the fifth order Fresnel lens was destroyed. A month later a new fifth-order lens was installed.

The lighthouse was once again damaged by ice flows in 1918 and was later reinforced with concrete.

The lighthouse was deactivated in 1962 and dismantled. It was replaced with an automated steel skeleton tower built on the original foundation."

For more information on the history of Chesapeake Lighthouses please visit: 

Old Plantation Flats Light Replica

Old Plantation Flats Lighthouse Replica

Lighthouse Friends is a splendidly thorough website dedicated to the history of lighthouses. We get the story of the Old Plantation Flats replica from their webpage:

"In the spring of 2004, Bay Creek Resort & Club built an exact replica of Old Plantation Flats Lighthouse in a man-made lake along the shores of Chesapeake Bay, just two miles from the original station. As the fourth-order lens removed from the lighthouse in 1962 could not be located, a replica along with a cast-iron pedestal were ordered from Artworks Florida.

Other features of the lighthouse that are true to the original include a three-foot by six-foot redwood cistern for collecting water off the roof, a coal stove, and a fog bell and striking mechanism.

The project manager for constructing the lighthouse was given an unlimited budget, but when the work was done, he was informed that he had exceeded it. Exceptional care and attention has gone into creating this modern Palmer #1 at sunset by Ron WruckeOld Plantation Flats Lighthouse, which stands near the second green of Bay Creek’s Arnold Palmer Signature Course.  

Photos by: Ron Wrucke @ 

A half-size model of Old Plantation Flats Lighthouse is used as a covered bridge on the fourth hole of the resort’s Jack Nicklaus Signature Course.   
In 2013, the replica lighthouse was awarded to Paul Galloway,  one of the two men who developed Bay Creek, along with a cash payment of $450,000 as part of a tentative settlement between the resort and Galloway Corporation."

Half size model on golf cart pathHalf-size model. Photo Credit: William Dyas  



Cherrystone Bar Light Station


Cherrystone LightPicture of Cherrystone Light Station showing false work under the structure preparatory to being transferred onto a scow for moving to Choptank River; looking S.W., Distance 100 ft. Photo courtesy National Archives.

The Cherrystone Bar Light Station was built in 1858 and situated at the mouth of Cherrystone Inlet on the Chesapeake Bay near Cape Charles. The station was an hexagonal screw-pile design with a small dwelling for the lightkeeper. It was raided during the Civil War and then in 1862, "Immediately upon the restoration of the eastern shore of Virginia to governmental control by the military operations in that quarter, the lights at Cape Charles, Cherrystone, and Hog island were re-established, and have rendered assistance of no small importance to the immensely increased navigation of Chesapeake bay and tributaries." 

 From 1879-1880, Peter Jacob Carter, a prominent historical figure, was the Cherrystone Bar Lightkeeper.  There is an historical marker about Carter and the important role he played in Northampton history on Bayside Road in Franktown, Virginia. It states: 

Peter Jacob Cater"Born enslaved on 29 May 1845 near Eastville, Northampton County, Peter Jacob Carter served in the 10th United States Colored Troops during the Civil War and afterward attended Hampton Institute. He represented Northampton in the House of Delegates from 1871 to 1879, was conspicuous in First Congressional District politics, chaired Republican state conventions and African American mass meetings, and attended the party’s national conventions. A prominent Eastern Shore politician, in the 1880s he joined the Readjuster Party, led by former Confederate general William Mahone. Carter died 19 July 1886 and was buried in the family cemetery near Franktown."

-Department of Historic Resources, 2009 Marker WY-11-a

More information about Peter Jacob Carter can be viewed at the Northampton County administration building in the "Northampton Notables" display. 

Cherrystone Light Caisson

The  Cherrystone Bar Light  Station was replaced in 1920 by an automated caisson style 

Photo courtesy National Archives. 
Cherrystone Light becomes Choptank River Light

"The lighthouse was removed in 1920 and shipped by barge to the site of the old Choptank River Light in Maryland. Thus making it the only lighthouse to ever be moved to another site to be used as a working navigational aid. The old Choptank light, which had been destroyed by ice, was removed and replaced with the Cherrystone Light. Sometime in 1964 the former Cherrystone Bar Light (Choptank River Light) was dismantled."


For a detailed timeline, please visit

Photo taken at Choptank River location. Photo courtesy National Archives



On the Seaside 


Hog Island Lighthouse

Hog Island Light 1885
Hog Island Lighthouse and keeper's dwelling circa 1885.
Photo courtesy National Archives. 

Hog Island has the romantic feel of days gone by. A simpler time when community picnics and ball games were the best entertainment all year. Hog Island was home to the village of Broadwater, a small thriving community in the late 1800's and early 1900's.  They had a post office, general store, Coast Guard station, school, church, lighthouse, hotel, hunt club, as well as a government wharf lined with shucking houses for scallops, oysters and clams.

A series of powerful storms and especially the aftermath of the hurricane of 1933 drove the islanders to put what was left of their village on barges and head for safer shores. Most settled in the Willis Wharf area. 

The lighthouse was also no match for the turbulent waters and erosion. "The first Hog Island Lighthouse was built in 1852 and was a white conical brick tower. This lighthouse lasted until 1896 when it was replaced with a cast iron pyramidal skeletal tower with a central cylinder. This lighthouse was similar to the Cape Charles lighthouse today." (
More of the land slipped under the sea and in 1948 the exoskeleton light tower was discontinued and demolished. 

USCGHog Island Lightdemo1
"The lighthouse was demolished using 350 pounds of TNT in 1948. The land the lighthouse stood on is now underwater. The southern end of the island is no higher than 12 feet now. Now only an abandoned Coast Guard station and a watchtower remain. "

Hog Island Lighthouse
Demolition charges explode at the base of the 1896 Hog Island Lighthouse. Photo taken 1948 by USCG.

LIFE Magazine of Hog Island
This photo was taken in 1944. It shows the remains of Broadwater at Hog Island  and the light tower. It appeared in LIFE Magazine during the 1950's. Photo courtesy National Archives.

For more history, artifacts and information about life on Hog Island, please visit The Barrier Islands Center in Machipongo, Virginia. 


The Fresnel Lens

Fresnel Lens

First-Order Lighthouse Lens From The Hog Island Lighthouse c.1950.

"This first-order lens is pictured while on loan to the Mariners Museum in the 1950’s. The lens, the second largest lighthouse lens in the United States stands 10 feet tall and weighs 2,500 pounds. 368 prisms make up the reflective body of the lens...The 10-foot high lens, a first order produced by the Henry-LePaute company in France, was removed from the lighthouse before the final destruction of the facility in 1948. The land the lighthouse stood on is now underwater. The southern end of the island is no higher than 12 feet now. Now only an abandoned Coast Guard station and a watchtower remain." 

Today, this lens can be seen at the near the Portsmouth Seawall, south of High Street Landing in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Fresnel Lens Portsmouth"Having begun service in 1896 as part of the Hog Island Light off the Great Machipongo Inlet on the Eastern Shore, today this first order Fresnel lens is valued between $750,000 and $1 million. It stands about 10 feet high, weighs 2,500 pounds and is among the largest and brightest of its kind, with more than 250 prisms of optical glass. Housed in a 16-foot-wide pavilion, this lens is the only one displayed outside of a museum setting." 

Fresnel Lens of Cape Charles Lighthouse at Mariner's Museum

After the light became automated, the first-order Fresnel lens of the third Cape Charles Lighthouse was removed from the Cape Charles light in 1963 and was transferred to the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, VA.
This installation allows one to view the special signature of the lights as they move across the lobby of the museum. 

The Invention of the Fresnel Lens

 "The effectiveness of lighthouse beacons took a giant leap forward in 1821 when a young French engineer named Augustin-Jean Fresnel developed a new magnifying lens comprised of a series of crystal prisms. The prisms focus the light source into a powerful beam that was many times more visible than that produced by earlier lens designs. Use of the Fresnel lens quickly spread through Europe, but their adoption in the U.S. and on the Chesapeake Bay was delayed by the inadequacies of the 5th Auditor's administration. It was not until the system overhaul of 1852 that Fresnel lenses began appearing in U.S. Lighthouses

Fresnel lenses are divided into "orders" - one through six. A first order Fresnel lens is the biggest and the type used by large ocean lighthouses. They stand approximately 8 feet tall, with an inside diameter of 6 feet, can weigh over 5 tons, and may have a range of 18 to 20 miles. A sixth order lens is reasonably small - about 17 inches tall with an inside diameter of 11 1/4". It can weigh up to 200 pounds and has a range of 1 to 3 miles. Most of the Chesapeake Bay lighthouses constructed in the mid 1800s were originally fitted with fifth order Fresnel lenses. In the later part of the 1800s these were usually upgraded to fourth order lenses (which stand about 2 1/2 feet tall and have an inside diameter of about 20").

In addition to being a precision tool, each lens is also somewhat of a work of art. They are made up of a series precision hand-crafted crystal prisms which are linked together. While their material and labor value is high, when historic and antique factors are also considered, they are somewhat priceless. Fresnel lenses are still used today in industrial and stage lighting as well as in lighthouses. The underlying technology is used in small lanterns and the running lights on boats. Understandably, the materials have evolved from hand crafted crystal to acrylic plastics, just as the light sources have evolved from oil fueled wicks and mantles to high tech electric bulbs."


One last thing...

Assateague Lighthouse is not in Northampton County but it is the only lighthouse on the Eastern Shore you can go visit.Assateague Lighthouse
It is located on Assateague Island National Seashore on the Virginia side and is a short distance from Chincoteague Island. The lighthouse is open to visitors each weekend from April through November from 9am to 3pm (closed from 12pm-12:30pm for lunch).
Free admission (donations are gratefully accepted, which will help keep the lighthouse open for visitors.) 

Assateague Lighthouse and birds

"The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is home of the lighthouse.The original lighthouse was constructed here in 1833 at a cost of approximately $55,000. In 1860, construction on a taller, more powerfully illuminated brick lighthouse began, but was delayed by the Civil War. After the war, work resumed and the lighthouse was completed in 1867. Assateague's lighthouse has twin rotating lights that flash one after the other from a height of 154 feet above sea level. The lights can be seen 19 miles out to sea. The Assateague Lighthouse stands 142 feet high, its base over 27 feet in diameter."

Photo credit: Jean E. Flynn