Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Comeuppance of History

Not the Photo I Planned, 2011

On Sunday I went over to the old Cape Henry lighthouse with the intention of making a panoramic photograph of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay from the top of the lighthouse.

“Old” is something of an ironic adjective given that the “new” Cape Henry lighthouse built in front of it to replace it went into service in 1881. The “old” lighthouse was completed in 1792 during the presidency of George Washington. The old lighthouse is such an enduring element of our city’s history that an illustration of it appears in the city’s seal.

I grew up about two miles to the south of the lighthouses, too far away to be aware of it unless I was out on the beach at night and could see the beacon sweep out across the Atlantic Ocean, but not too far away to hear the Cape Henry fog horn that was a familiar bellow to anyone living at the north end of the beach in those days.

Since 1914, the two lighthouses have been surrounded by Fort Story, originally an Army base and now a sub-installation of the U.S. Navy. During my youth, you could ride your bicycle into and pretty much all over the base. In the wake of 9/11, access to the base is far more restricted. If you’re willing to stop and allow your vehicle to be inspected and declare that you’re not carrying firearms, though, you’re allowed to drive to the lighthouse site.

So on Sunday I endured my vehicle search, declared myself free of firearms, paid my $5 admission fee to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and clambered up the sand dune and from there the ninety feet up to the top of the old lighthouse. It was a sunny day and the view was wonderful. There were other people behind me climbing to the top of the lighthouse, so I quickly made the shots that I would use to stitch together into a panorama.

The first people to ascend to the top of the lighthouse behind me were a young Navy enlistee and his girlfriend. They busied themselves taking pictures of each other. I offered to take a picture of them together. After they mentioned that they are from New Mexico and unfamiliar with our area, I told them a little of the history of the lighthouses and Cape Henry so that they might know more about what they were viewing. When I mentioned that the “first permanent English settlers in America” had landed near the foot of the old lighthouse just over four hundred years ago, though, they very politely reminded me that there were permanent settlers from Spain living in what is now New Mexico long before the dandies from London headed for the “New World” of Virginia.

I knew that, although in Virginia we tend to revere English history a bit much and a little too defensively at times. It turns out the young lady is a history teacher. Knowing better than to question a teacher or make a big thing about the distinction between English settlers and Spanish settlers—especially since Spanish explorers had indeed stopped to check out Cape Henry long before the Virginia Company settlers arrived in 1607—I wished the couple a good visit and made a hasty retreat down the spiral staircase to the ground.

As for the panorama, it was terrible, a discordant symphony of converging and diverging lines. Next time I go up there I’ll have to take a much wider lens and see if I can capture the view in a single shot.


  1. I'm still mad at Sherman. We all have our history issues....

  2. Hahaaa--I love this shot, though--it definitely tells a story. Very interesting perspective. It looks as if it was a gorgeous day.

  3. My parents attempted to visit the lighthouse one time a few years ago. They arrived at the gate, and were asked why they wanted to visit the Base. My mother volunteered that they; "wanted to look around". That unfortunately wasn't, and I would assume still isn't a good enough reason.

    One has to specifically mention that you are there to visit the lighthouse to be allowed onto the Fort Story grounds, so that you can go see the lighthouse.

    Needless to say, my senior citizen parents were denied entry, and never did get over to see the Cape Henry lighthouses.

  4. Mark, Fort Story was the last military base in the Dept of Defense to adopt the full post-9/11 security restrictions. These days there's no fooling around there and no "wandering." I will say that the security personnel I've encountered there are unfailingly professional.

  5. Love it. How'd you get the panes so clean?

    "Permanent," "English," "settlement," "America" -- each word necessary for the claim to fame to be true, and we wonder why it's not more widely known . . . .

    Used to ride my bike there and climb it every day in the summer as a kid. (It was free and open in the summer in those days.) Used to sleep out on an open-air porch at night, listening to it (waking up covered in dew). Great memories.

  6. Chris the security is understandable, but I've always thought it was a little comical that my parents never tweaked to the fact that they had to let the guard know specifically what they wanted to do.

    My wife and I climbed up there one time back in '03, and it should be pointed out, that there one has to climb a ladder to get to the observation deck. There's no nice stairway like at Cape Hatteras.

  7. Mark - when the Army ran the base, security was no less rigorous, but the personnel were more dogmatic. Someone trained to observe the strict letter of the law wouldn't have thought to think that your mother might be speaking colloquially. The guard should have known better. But you know how a little power goes to some people's heads.

    And yes, that last ladder is a surprise to a lot of people. The opening actually used to be smaller, too. The iron staircase in the lighthouse actually replaced the original, which was made of wood.

  8. We visited Ft. Story a couple of years back and nearly fave the folks inspecting my Expedition a stroke when they ran my license plates and discovered I hold a permit to carry a concealed handgun. While I was getting frisked my wife mentioned that she holds one as well. Finally the Officer of the Day rolled up and he was an old buddy from my days at Little Creek. He asked if we had any weapons in the truck, we said no and he sent us on our way. My mom, a Navy Hospital Corpsman during WWII and the Korean War got a huge kick out of the whole thing.

  9. In the wait I try to imagine what we will see!