We’ve talked about World War II history and we’ve talked about the storied past of the Indian River Inlet. Today, in the third installment of our historical blog series, we’re going to talk about lighthouses.
Now when most visitors to coastal Delaware think of lighthouses, they think of the pair of lights that grace the famed Delaware Breakwater in Lewes, or perhaps the light that still towers over the Delaware/Maryland state line in Fenwick Island.
There’s also the Lightship Overfalls that is today one of the highlights of a trip to the Lewes Harbor, and we’ll talk about the history behind that iconic ship in a future blog entry.
But the most famous and well-known lighthouse that's ever adorned the shores of the Delaware coast is one that was lost to history years before nearly all of us were even born.
Below is a photo of the lighthouse we’ll be talking about today. If you’re a frequent visitor to Rehoboth Beach, you no doubt recognize it.
This beautiful lighthouse welcoming all to the “Nation’s Summer Capital” is much more than just a visually appealing southern Delaware greeting, however. The light that today adorns the traffic circle on Rehoboth Avenue is actually a one-third replica of the famed Cape Henlopen Lighthouse, which slipped forever into the sea many decades ago.
For generations, this most famous of Delaware lighthouses rested high atop a sand dune about a quarter-mile from the ocean and 2,200 feet from the northern tip of Cape Henlopen.
But, this majestic location was what eventually caused the collapse of the once powerful light. More on that in a bit…
The Cape Henlopen Lighthouse was built in the early 1760s by a group of people who never resided in Delaware at all, yet had a vested interest in keeping ships safe and away from the shoals and other perils along the Delaware coastline.
National Archives Photo
Who was that group of people? It was actually a committed group of Philadelphia ship owners and merchants, men who grew tired of losing lives and cargo as a result of shipwrecks off the Delaware coast.
So they raised the funds to build the 60-foot-tall lighthouse, which also measured six feet thick at its base and sat 126 feet above sea level. It was, by all accounts, built like a fortress and meant to stand the test of time.
And for decades, it did.
Then came the Revolutionary War and the blockade of the Delaware Bay by the British Navy in 1777. And thus, the tale of the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse takes an interesting and historical turn.
The following passage is from the book, “Remembering Sussex County: From Zwaanendael to King Chicken,” published by the History Press in 2009.
“In 1777, the British blockaded Delaware Bay with a small flotilla of warships determined to keep residents of the colonies at bay.
There was a problem though, as future British captains would learn during the war of 1812 ― there wasn’t enough food on board their ships to withstand a long, drawn out blockade.
So the captain of a British frigate named the Roebuck, seeing the famed lighthouse off in the distance for day upon starving day, sent a group of his men ashore to purchase cattle for his crew.
When the lighthouse keeper refused to sell any of his cows, the British sailors unsuccessfully tried to take them by force. The keeper resisted and was eventually sent scurrying to the safety of a nearby woods, where he hopelessly watched as the angry sailors defiantly set fire to his lighthouse.
With the burning, the original Cape Henlopen Lighthouse was temporarily put out of service, but it would be restored and reopened better than ever seven years later.”
But what was not fully understood in 1784, nor for many years later, was that the lighthouse was doomed. Not from damage during the war and not from anything that was undertaken during the rebuilding or even later in time.
IT WAS DOOMED FROM THE DAY IT WAS CONSTRUCTED!
The reason was simple, yet not realized for many years – the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse was built on top of a sand dune that was not meant to withstand the daily pounding it inevitably took from Mother Ocean.
Delaware Public Archives Photo
This finally became clear in the early years of the 20th century, and several attempts were made to save the lighthouse. Finally, when it became evident that nothing could be done, the structure was abandoned in 1924 and everyone waited for the inevitable to occur.
From that time on, every time a Nor’easter blew threw coastal Delaware, residents waited to see if the lighthouse would survive the storm. Piers and bulwarks built along the beach had slowed the erosion, buying but a small amount of additional time for the local icon.
But it still remained a question of “when,” not “if,” it would eventually tumble into the sea.
It didn’t take long…
In April of 1926, just two years after it was shuttered for the final time, the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse finally fulfilled its inevitable destiny and crumbled into the ocean.
Delaware Public Archives Photo
And while you would have to be at least 90 years old today to have actually seen the structure with your own eyes, the memory of the Cape Henlopen Light still lives on through the replica that welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors every year to Delaware’s most famous seaside resort.
It may be gone, but it will never be forgotten.
Do you have any stories that have been passed down to you about the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse? If so, we would love to hear them, and we’re sure others would as well.
And be sure to join us next time as we continue our look into coastal Delaware’s rich and unique history.
Have a great day everyone!
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