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Fresnel Lens on the Portsmouth Seawall
The Fresnel Lighthouse Lens on the Portsmouth Seawall is the only lens of its kind not housed in a museum setting. When you take a stroll on the Portsmouth Seawall, observe the Hog Island Lighthouse Fresnel Lens. It’s located at the foot of High Street, on the Elizabeth River in front of the One High Street building. This Fresnel lighthouse lens once shone from the Hog Island Lighthouse off the coast on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Viewing the lens is one of the many fun things to do in Portsmouth Virginia.
This massive lighthouse lens from the 19th century was restored and placed on Portsmouth’s riverfront more than 15 years ago for the public to enjoy. It is from a lighthouse that is no longer standing: Hog Island Lighthouse on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
Augustin-Jean Fresnel (‘Fray-NEL’), for whom this style of lens is named, was a French civil engineer and physicist in the early 1800s. He invented the combination of reflecting and refracting prisms that make up these beautiful optics. The strengthened lights led to more visible lighthouses, which made navigation much more efficient and saved countless lives.
Views of the lens as it was being dismantled for storage to keep it safe while the adjacent seawall was being reconstructed.
The Hog Island Lighthouse began service in 1896 off the Great Machipongo Inlet on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. 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. The Fresnel Lens is housed in a 16-foot-wide pavilion on the Portsmouth Seawall, at the foot of High Street.
The City of Portsmouth’s Museums Department preserved, curates, and maintains the Fresnel Lens. Maybe you noticed its absence over the past few years, while the seawall was being rebuilt. The lens was actually dismantled and safely stored to prevent damage from the nearby construction. We’re glad it’s back!
The Portsmouth Museums maintains and operates the Children’s Museum of Virginia, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum, the Portsmouth Lightship Museum, the Portsmouth Community Colored Library, and the Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center.
A special thanks to Diane Cripps, Curator of History Portsmouth Museums for contributions to this article.