In 1880, the Lighthouse Board insisted that steady progress was being made, in spite of delays in the metalwork and land negotiations: “...about one third of the wrought iron work has been completed. The base section, comprising about 16 feet in height of the tower, is nearly completed.” An 1880 photograph shows construction materials strewn around a base section just starting to emerge from the sand, with the reliable old stone tower standing staunchly in the background.
A pier was completed near the construction site in August 1880, and soon thereafter “the broken stone for concrete, the hoisting-engines and steam concrete-mixer, 600 barrels of imperial Portland cement, brick for the fog-signal building and the fog-siren machinery, with the exception of the boilers, were landed.” After enduring these tons of bricks and machines, the pier proved too fragile for a load of tower ironwork, and the bridge leading from the loading dock to the shore broke under the strain of a fully loaded car. The remainder of the off-loaded ironwork was transported to Norfolk by a hastily procured schooner and placed in storage. Just hours after the load was removed, the pier collapsed entirely.
The failure was not totally the fault of the pier-builder; examination of the wood revealed that a boring worm had devoured much of the structure, weakening it considerably. The Lighthouse Board decided that rather than rebuild the pier a tramway would be extended four miles to Lynnhaven Inlet, where scows (flat bottomed freight boats) would be used to land construction materials.
When work was suspended for the winter in November 1880, a brick fog signal building, covered by a corrugated iron roof, had been completed, and one worker remained behind to watch over the property and supplies. The first-class steam siren housed in the fog signal building commenced operation on December 1, 1880.
Work on the lighthouse resumed on May 30, 1881 and progressed smoothly from this point forward. By mid-June the extensive preparatory work had been completed; this included relaying portions of the tramway that had washed out and “putting hoisting engines in order, erecting derricks and preparing cars for hauling.” The remaining metal plates, their completion long delayed by inept contractors, were finally ready to be shipped from their foundries in mid-July, and a first-order Fresnel lens was awaiting shipment from the Staten Island depot to Virginia.
The two towers continue to stand side-by-side on the southerly Cape of Chesapeake Bay, one of the most important shipping channels in the nation. The vital ports of Norfolk, Newport News, Baltimore, and Washington are all accessed through Chesapeake Bay, and the Cape Henry lighthouses have provided over two hundred years of uninterrupted aid to navigation.
New Cape Henry Lighthouse is adorned with one of the most distinctive daymarks to be found on a lighthouse anywhere in the world. Its stark octagonal tower alternates between white and black on its various faces, and midway up this pattern is offset by one face, producing a checkerboard-like effect. The unique coloring distinguishes Cape Henry from the all-white tower of Cape Charles to the north and the redbrick tower at Currituck Beach to the south.
In July 1887, a system of magneto-electric call bells with an arranged code of signals was installed at the station to connect the tower, fog signal building, and dwellings, and in April 1888, a 79° red sector was placed in the lens to cover dangerous shoals at the entrance to the bay. In 1892, a brick oil house, capable of storing 500 five-gallon oil cans was erected near the lighthouse along with a summer kitchen.
During the twentieth century, Cape Henry Lighthouse saw many technological upgrades that have accumulated to make it the very modern aid to navigation station that it is today. In 1912, an incandescent oil-vapor lamp replaced a lamp with five concentric oil-burning wicks, and ten years later, the light was converted to electricity and its characteristic changed from fixed white to a group of three flashes every twenty seconds. At the time of electrification of the light, experiments were conducted at Cape Henry to determine what type of bulb and how many were needed, as it was feared that a single electric bulb would not provide sufficient light to reach all the prisms of the lens.
A radiobeacon was placed in commission at Cape Henry on June 1, 1923, making it one of the first lighthouses in the United States to deploy such a device. After an electrically operated oscillator replaced the first-class siren, it was possible to conveniently synchronize the fog signal and radiobeacon, and on February 26, 1929, a distance-finding test was conducted off Cape Henry and found that by noting the difference in time between the reception of the radio signal and the audible fog signal a vessel could determine its distance from the lighthouse with sufficient accuracy for navigation. The setup was officially commissioned on May 23, 1929 as the country's first synchronized distance-finding system.
Since 1984, Cape Henry Lighthouse has been fully automated, rendering the presence of a keeper unnecessary. Budget restrictions have forced the U.S. Coast Guard to examine the “prohibitive costs of maintaining the historical integrity of the structure.” The Coast Guard is responsible for 50,000 aids to navigation, only about 500 of which are lighthouses. In a memo from the late 1980s, the commander of the Fifth Coast Guard District defended his decision to continue maintenance of New Cape Henry Lighthouse: “You…recommended that we excess the structure and… build a skeleton tower for the required optic. … As the program manager, it is my decision to retain this lighthouse as one of the major landfall aids for the Chesapeake Bay entrance. A skeleton tower would not present the same visual daymark as the current 165-foot tower."
Some within the Coast Guard proposed demolishing the tower, hoping that a historical society would then step in to save the lighthouse. Even without the threat of demolition, it seems this goal just might be achieved. In 2005, Virginia’s most experienced historic preservation organization, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), requested control of the lighthouse from the Coast Guard. APVA already runs the old lighthouse just 100 yards away, and if successful in obtaining the new one, they plan to open the iron tower for climbing, and the associated two keeper’s quarters for tours. Cape Henry would certainly become one of the top lighthouse destinations if this occurs.