Without a light, but not without a keeper

Story and photos by Coast Guard Auxiliarist Trey Clifton

CapeHenry02The first American lighthouse was lit on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor in 1716.  In 1939, the Bureau of Lighthouses was transferred to the modern day Coast Guard.

Since then, lighthouse keepers have kept the watch to ensure mariners are safely guided to shore by these stately beacons. On the sandy shores of Virginia Beach sits the original Cape Henry Lighthouse, which once stood watch over the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. The lighthouse has a long history of service dating back to 1792 when President George Washington appointed the first lighthouse keeper. Just shy of a century after its construction, the lighthouse was retired and replaced with a new structure a few hundred yards away.

From its inception, the original lighthouse was no stranger to setbacks. Not only was it the first federally funded lighthouse, but also the first over-budget federal project, requiring an additional $2,500 in work on the foundation. After surviving the weather and war cracks in the structure became visible, and the original lighthouse was officially removed from service. Although the lighthouse was retired, one of the lighthouse keepers may still remain according to some local historians and folklorists.

During its lifespan, many lighthouse keepers came and went. It is believed that one of the first three keepers may continue to stand the watch today.

CapeHenry01When the lighthouse was built and ready for service, President Washington appointed William Lewis as the first lighthouse keeper. However, Lewis would never actually stand watch at the lighthouse as he died from a massive heart attack en route. After a successful second lighthouse keeper, Laban Goffigan of Norfolk, Va., was appointed in May 1793, he only stood watch until December the following year before passing away at the lighthouse.

Since then, shopkeepers at the lighthouse have reported things randomly falling off shelves without anyone present and other strange happenings, all occurring in December. It may be coincidental, but some say the original Cape Henry Lighthouse may still have a lighthouse keeper standing the watch — perhaps Goffigan himself. While its light was extinguished and its watch over the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay was assumed by a successor, the original Cape Henry lighthouse may not be abandoned after all.