Craney Island is a point of land in the independent city of Portsmouth in the South Hampton Roads region of eastern Virginia in the United States. The location, formerly in Norfolk County, is near the mouth of the Elizabeth River opposite Lambert's Point on Hampton Roads. It is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The name "Craney Island" was derived from the fact that the early English settlers on the Elizabeth River in the 17th century were impressed with the great number of what they mistakenly believed to be cranes that inhabited it. Hence the name "Crayne" or "Craney Point." The birds the settlers thought were cranes were actually white and blue herons, still fairly common birds in the Hampton Roads region.
Near the entrance to the navigational channel of the Elizabeth River, Craney Island proved to be of strategic significance during the War of 1812, and the American Civil War.
During the War of 1812, U.S. defensive emplacements on Craney Island had a seven-gun fortification and was manned by 580 Regulars and militia in addition to 150 sailors and marines from the USS Constellation. On June 22, 1813, the Battle of Craney Island took place. 81 British troops were killed of their 1300 total, with no American losses of the 730 man force. The victory at Craney Island saved Norfolk and Portsmouth from being captured and pillaged by the enemy.
In 1820, the first U.S. lightship was established at Hampton Roads. It was first placed at Willoughby Spit, on the south side of the harbor. The weather conditions proved to be too harsh on the seventy-ton vessel there and it was moved to Craney Island where it served until 1859. It was replaced by a lighthouse, which was replaced in 1884 by a hexagonal lighthouse. The 1884 lighthouse at Craney Island served until 1936.
Early in the American Civil War (1861-1865), the important Gosport Shipyard upstream from Craney Island on the Elizabeth River at Portsmouth fell into Confederate hands and the first Confederate ironclad warship CSS Virginia was built there. This ship fought the first Union ironclad USS Monitor during the famous Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862, which was inconclusive as neither armored ship could defeat the other.
Only two months later, as recapture of Norfolk and Portsmouth by Union forces was imminent, on the morning of May 11, 1862, the Virginia was deliberately run aground near Craney Island and burned by the crew to avoid capture.
In modern times, Craney Island is an industrial area and is used as a location for placement of dredged materials. It is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A major fueling depot for the United States Navy is located adjacent. The Norfolk District of the Corps staff has received recognition for the creation, protection, and preservation of a critical habitat for birds such as the piping plover, least terns, brown pelicans, osprey, and other threatened or endangered species that use the island as a large nesting ground. Audubon Society members have turned the island into a favorite spot for bird watching.
Craney Island is visible to Interstate 664 traffic crossing Hampton Roads on the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel which is located to the west or from Old Dominion University to the east. The proposed Third Crossing of Hampton Roads would cross Craney Island.