Early Federal Octagonals, 1792-1817

When the first Congress met in 1789 one of its first acts was to take responsibility for lighthouses and other aids to navigation throughout the new country. For the next quarter century new lighthouses were authorized individually by Congress, and the highest officials of the government, including the president, were involved in selecting sites and contractors.

The early federal lighthouses were built sturdily of cut stone (or brick) rather than rubblestone, they were in some cases taller than colonial lighthouses, and their engineering was better. Most of these lighthouses have survived to the present day because they were adequately funded and carefully built by a small number of skilled builders. Nearly all of them share the same basic octagonal design, a design based on the successful colonial lighthouses at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and Cape Henlopen, Delaware. They are all blunt, massive towers with solid walls, very thick at the base and tapering like pyramids. Nine of them survive:

  1. Cape Henry, Virginia (1792) John McComb
  2. Montauk Point, New York (1797) John McComb
  3. Eaton's Neck, New York (1799) John McComb
  4. New London Harbor, Connecticut (1801) Abisha Woodward
  5. Faulkner's Island, Connecticut (1802) Abisha Woodward
  6. Old Point Comfort, Virginia (1802) Elzy Burroughs
  7. New Point Comfort, Virginia (1806) Elzy Burroughs
  8. Sands Point, New York (1809) Noah Mason
  9. Bald Head Island, North Carolina (1817) Daniel Way

A very important tenth tower does not survive. The original Cape Hatteras lighthouse was also an early federal octagonal, 100 feet tall. Built by Henry Dearborn after John McComb backed out of the bidding, it was completed in 1803 and demolished when the famous 200-foot tower was completed in 1870. An eleventh tower, the 75-foot first St. Simons Island Light in Georgia, was built in 1810 by James Gould and demolished in 1872 in favor of a more modern 105-foot tower.

Five of the lighthouses (Montauk Point, Eaton's Neck, New London Harbor, Faulkner's Island, and Old Point Comfort) remain in service today.

Montauk Point Light
Montauk Point Light, East Hampton, June 2012
Flickr Creative Commons photo by AudreyH

John McComb, Jr.
(1763-1853) helped set the style for the period by building an outstanding lighthouse at Cape Henry, the southern entrance to Chesapeake Bay. McComb, who lived in New York City, was one of the young country's best known architects. Among his New York building projects were the Government House (1790); Alexander Hamilton's home, The Grange (1802); and New York City Hall (1803-1815).

At Cape Henry McComb dug out of the sand many of the stone blocks transported there before the Revolution, when Virginia and Maryland planned to build a lighthouse on the cape. Using them, he built a better tower than his contract specified: he sank the foundation 20 feet below sea level rather than 13, and he increased the diameter of the base from 27.5 feet to 33 feet. The tower is about 90 feet high and remained in service until 1881, when it was replaced by a 164-foot cast iron tower.

McComb's other lighthouses, the 100-foot Montauk Point Light and the 70-foot Eaton's Neck Light, both on Long Island, are of similar design and workmanship. Both Long Island towers remain in service to the present day.

The Cape Henry and Montauk Point lighthouses are open to the public and are popular historic attractions. Eaton's Neck, located at an active Coast Guard station, is closed.

Old Cape Henry Lighthouse, Virginia Beach, September 2015
Wikimedia Creative Commons photo by Gelshore2
New London Harbor Light
New London Harbor Light, Connecticut, September 2007
Flickr photo copyright Jeremy D'Entremont; used by permission

Abisha Woodward (1752-1809) was a contractor from New London, Connecticut, evidently a man of many talents. In 1793 he won a federal contract to complete the original Bald Head Island Light at Cape Fear, North Carolina. The state of North Carolina had begun work on this lighthouse before the new federal government assumed control of aids to navigation in 1789, and the tower was well advanced in construction when Woodward arrived on the scene. It's not his fault that the lighthouse was built too close to the shore and had to be torn down in 1813.

In 1796 Woodward bid on the contract for the Montauk Point lighthouse, but he lost the contract when he was underbid by John McComb.

In 1799 a large crack developed in the wooden lighthouse at New London Harbor in Woodward's home town, and he was selected to build a stone replacement. The 89-foot tower Woodward completed in 1801 continues to shine today. The lantern has held a fourth order Fresnel lens since 1857. In many respects it shows a rather strong resemblance to the Cape Henry Light; this resemblance reflects the federal specifications, which described in detail the form and shape of the tower. Like McComb's lighthouses, Woodward's towers show robust design and careful and sturdy workmanship.

In 1802 Woodward built a second stone tower, about half the height of the New London lighthouse, at Faulkner's Island off the Connecticut coast. This tower looks very much like the upper half of the New London tower.

The following year Woodward built an octagonal tower in wood at the mouth of the Connecticut River in Old Saybrook. That lighthouse was replaced by a more substantial structure in 1838. In 1805 he built the first lighthouse on Little Gull Island in Long Island Sound, New York; it was replaced by a taller structure in 1867. In 1808 he built another wood lighthouse at Watch Hill, Rhode Island; it was demolished when the present lighthouse was completed in 1856.

In Virginia, Elzy Burroughs (1771-1825), a stonemason from Stafford County near Fredericksburg, contracted to build two lighthouses on the Chesapeake Bay, at Old Point Comfort and New Point Comfort. ("Old Point" and "New Point" are about 20 miles apart.) The two towers, built in 1802 and 1806, respectively, are nearly twins, both being about 55 feet tall. Both are built of sandstone quarried near Burroughs's home and shipped down the Potomac and Chesapeake to the two sites. These Virginia lighthouses have a striking resemblance to Woodward's light at Faulkner's Island.

Unfortunately, the two lighthouses haven't fared equally well in recent years. Old Point Comfort marks the entrance to Hampton Roads, one of the world's greatest harbors. The Old Point Comfort Light has been surrounded for nearly its whole lifetime by Fortress Monroe, a historic Army post. Never captured by the Confederacy, it is one of the few Southern lights to escape the Civil War unscathed. Still active, it has been carefully maintained ever since and is a well known and well loved landmark in the Hampton Roads area.

New Point Comfort, on the other hand, marks a point of land in rural Matthews County, between the York and Rappahannock Rivers. It was built on a small island just off the point, an island which has dwindled in recent decades to a mere sandbar. The light was deactivated in 1963. The keeper's quarters and the rest of he light station have disappeared into the Bay, and the tower has been battered by time, weather, and vandals. There has been work in recent years to restore the tower, but it remains on the Lighthouse Digest Doomsday List.

Burroughs bought the island on which the New Point Comfort lighthouse was to be built and then sold the lighthouse lot to the federal government. He also served as its first keeper.

Earlier, in 1803, Burroughs had also built the first lighthouse at Smith Point, the entrance to the Potomac River. Not much is known about this lighthouse. In 1807 Burroughs returned to Smith Point to relocate the lighthouse, which was threatened by beach erosion. The light was not very helpful to mariners, so it was abandoned in 1821 and has long since vanished.

Old Point Comfort Light, Hampton, September 2013
Wikimedia Creative Commons photo by Acroterion
Bald Head Island Light
Bald Head Island Light, North Carolina, May 2012
Flickr Creative Commons photo by Tim Engleman

The last of the early federal octagonal lighthouses seems very different from the others, yet it is really quite similar. In 1816 the federal government called for bids to replace the Bald Head Island lighthouse in North Carolina (the lighthouse Abisha Woodward completed in 1793). A 100-foot octagonal tower was specified, with proportions very similar to those of the Cape Henry or Montauk Point Lights. The one important difference is the building material: Old Baldy is built of brick rather than stone, because of the difficulties of transporting stone to Cape Fear and the lack of workmen in the vicinity familiar with stone construction. Later on, the tower was covered with stucco, which has weathered to give the lighthouse its unusual, mottled appearance.

The Bald Head Island Light was built by Daniel S. Way, a North Carolina brick mason, who was able (with difficulty) to salvage many of the bricks of the earlier tower finished by Abisha Woodward. The cost was much higher than Way expected, so he made little or nothing on the contract, but he built well nonetheless and his tower has stood the test of time and countless hurricanes. Extinguished in 1861 at the start of the Civil War, Old Baldy was revived in 1879 and served until it was deactivated in 1930. Old Baldy has long been the emblem of the Cape Fear region; today it is carefully preserved as the centerpiece of an upscale coastal development.

As mentioned above, two more octagonal brick towers were built in the southern states: the 90 ft (27 m) tower at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in 1803 and the 75 ft (23 m) tower at St. Simons Island, Georgia, in 1810. These lighthouses were replaced following the Civil War, in 1870 and 1872, respectively.

In South Carolinao a wood lighthouse was built at North Island near Georgetown in 1801. After a storm largely destroyed that lighthouse, it was replaced by a brick tower in 1811. However, this tower broke the design pattern: it is round. The Georgetown lighthouse survives and is still active.

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Posted June 15, 2000. Checked and revised September 22, 2018. Site copyright 2018 Russ Rowlett and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.