When it comes to iconic images of Delaware, the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse ranks at or near the top of the list. Its likeness can be found in galleries, on greeting cards, on websites, and in logos. There’s even a mini-replica set in the middle of a traffic roundabout on the way into Rehoboth Beach.
That’s pretty impressive, considering the fact that the lighthouse toppled into the sea nearly a century ago. But it’s also mind-boggling—how in the world did such a beloved icon come to such an undignified end?
Among the first lighthouses ever built in the American colonies, Cape Henlopen light shined from the coast between Lewes and Rehoboth Beach for 161 years, from 1764 to 1925. She was built at the behest of Philadelphia businessmen tired of losing valuable cargo aboard ships that sank on dangerous shoals while entering the Delaware Bay.
One commenter from those colonial times put it this way: “The wrecks which lie plentifully scattered over the beach afford a melancholy proof of the necessity of a lighthouse to the approaching navigator.”
To pay construction costs, those Philadelphians launched a lottery and sold thousands of tickets. A couple of landowners from up that way granted a 200-acre site to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (which, in colonial times, included Delaware.)
The beacon that went up on that site stood seven stories tall, a granite octagon rising from the midst of a scrub pine forest on high land about a mile from the coast. The love that gets showered on this lighthouse today isn’t just a matter of nostalgia. Another observer from colonial times predicted she would stand until the end of the world:
“[The lighthouse] bids fair to endure until the final wreck of all things shall destroy it.”
Alas, Judgement Day arrived on Cape Henlopen earlier than that—on April 13, 1926, to be precise.
The Sentinel: A Witness to History
One way to think about this legacy of this lighthouse is by thinking of her as a sentinel, watching over Delaware and its bay through one momentous turn after another across many decades. There she stood, shining, as British ships prowled the Atlantic Coast and the Delaware Bay during the American Revolution. There she stood, shining, as Delaware emerged from Pennsylvania’s shadow and became “The First State” to ratify the Constitution. That light went dark for a bit when British ships returned and bombed Lewes during the War of 1812, but she was shining again soon enough, watching over schooners and steamboats and skipjacks and motorboats.
Legends took shape. One had evil Redcoats setting fire to the lighthouse in Revolutionary times. It’s probably not true, but hey—it’s a helluva story, and it’s got a plucky Delawarean for a hero, so it kept getting told over and over.
Traditions took shape, too. Somewhere along the way, Easter Monday became a holiday in Lewes. Schools and businesses and offices closed. Pretty much everyone in town made their way to Cape Henlopen—some in carriages, some atop carts, some on foot. They climbed to the top of the dune where the Lighthouse stood. There would be egg hunts and egg rolling contests. Then came the main event—children and adults rolling themselves down the sandy slope in a series of hotly contested races.
The Wilmington Evening Journal, 1925: “After a session of such exercise, appetites are whetted for the heavy basket luncheons that have been prepared. As a homecoming event Easter Monday, with all its celebration, means to Lewestown what a camp meeting does to many other communities.”
Another thing to remember is that Cape Henlopen Lighthouse wasn’t just an icon for Delawareans—sailors from every corner of the world harbored memories of that granite tower. Passing Cape Henlopen marked a momentous turn in life for countless seamen, as the spot often signaled the start or the end of a treacherous trans-Atlantic journey.
In 1925, history buff and citizen activist Everett C. Johnson tried to stoke public passions about Cape Henlopen Lighthouse by putting this long view into perspective:
‘Old Henlopen’ is not just a bit of sentiment of a few who feel History and Tradition but it is known in every port the world over. No building in our border is so crowded with Facts, History, and Tradition as this Tower.
Journey to the Edge of the Abyss
The primary culprit in the demise of Cape Henlopen Lighthouse was Mother Nature. During all those momentous decades, the ocean kept advancing on the beacon, little by little. In an unsigned article from 1890, The New York Sun described the “traveling hill of Cape Henlopen” and as “one of the most interesting [natural] features” of the Atlantic Coast.”
“A ridge of sand more than a mile long, fifty feet high, and two hundred yards wide in the base, is rolling inland like a mighty wave from the sea, and with a power that is irresistible. Judging by what the people say here, the wave travels not far from fifty feet a year where its course is not obstructed by the forest, but even there it travels perhaps 35 or 40 feet. It has covered half-a-mile in forty years.”
By the time this piece was published, the crest of the sandhill had moved from an estimated 25 yards north of the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse to 50 yards south of it. The article quotes an engineer attributing the phenomenon to the way winds from the north would pick up sand from the eastern face of the dune, then carry it up and over to the western side. On windy days, the top of that dune resembled a windswept Sahara with sands moving “in such clouds that no one could travel along the ridge except when the face was covered with a thick veil.”
The essay also raises the question of whether Mother Nature had an accomplice—mankind. During the 1800s, a huge stone breakwater was put in at Cape Henlopen so that ships could find refuge in bad weather. This didn’t cause the problem at hand—the ocean had been advancing on the lighthouse since long before the breakwater came along. But did the project alter the flow of waves and sand in ways that moved things along faster?
By the early 1900s, everyone could see that the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse would soon drown if nothing were done. The beacon was operated by the federal government at this point. In 1905, its workers packed several tons of brush and wood around the base of the lighthouse. Later efforts along these same lines included rip-rap, bulkheads, and makeshift jetties.
But the relentless sea kept right on advancing. On Jan. 4, 1914, the Washington Post reported that Cape Henlopen Lighthouse was “completely surrounded by water” in the wake of a storm. The beacon survived that ordeal, and many others that followed. In fact, the status of the lighthouse—was it still standing?—became a regular feature of even routine stories about bad weather.
As the 1920s dawned, various government agencies and Delaware civic groups were looking for ways to save Cape Henlopen Lighthouse for posterity. One proposal would have installed a giant arc of obsolete World War I ships to serve as a jetty around the beacon. An engineer floated the idea of erecting a protective steel casing along the east side of the tower. Various rotary clubs tried to raise funds in support of such projects. There was even talk of moving the lighthouse to the Dover Green or the University of Delaware campus. The state formed a special Lighthouse Preservation Commission, headed by the aforementioned Everett C. Johnson.
In July of 1924, however, a lighthouse keeper identified by the Wilmington Evening Journal as Captain Gray put a gloomy spin on all this activity:
“Government engineers are puzzled in their efforts to save the old lighthouse. We have built jetties only to see them smashed, for the sea is stronger than man’s ingenuity. We have given up hope, and all we can do now is to wait until she sinks into the water.”
Officials had no choice but to prepare for the worst. The light atop the storied beacon went dark on Oct. 1, 1924. A new, temporary light set atop metal scaffolding went into use the next day.
Headline in the Wilmington Evening Journal, Jan. 2, 1925: “Beacon Built in 1764 Likely to be Carried Into Sea Today by Fierce Northeaster.”
The Wilmington Evening News, Jan. 5, 1925: “The Cape Henlopen light house … was again victorious and today the beacon was still standing after battling the gale which raged in Delaware Bay.”
This brings us to a young woman named Lillian Coverdale. She had graduated from high school just a few weeks before she decided to jump into the lighthouse fray by penning an essay in the Wilmington News Journal on June 24, 1925. For the next few paragraphs, I will just leave this story in her capable hands:
“The noted lighthouse after withstanding the buffet of many fierce storms for nearly two centuries is trembling almost within reach of the hungry waves of dancing waters. If not protected by adequate defenses, its firm foundation will be disintegrated by unsympathetic waves and the towering structure will topple into the sea.”
“This should not be. Cape Henlopen Light is too fine a landmark, imbued with too many hallowed and patriotic associations to be allowed to disappear in disgrace. It should be protected so that it may remain an enduring relic of the past for centuries to come.”
“Sentiment and tradition demand its preservation. Its light has been kept burning continuously since the revolution. … An unsympathetic government will do nothing, but the people of Delaware should act. Cape Henlopen Light is one of the striking attractions of the Atlantic coast. Stately and imposing, its towering form has stood out in bold relief, an assurance to mariners by day and a protection at night. Every citizen should do all in his power to provide for its salvation.”
Judgment Day on Cape Henlopen
That young woman’s clarion call came too late. Time ran out for the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse less than a year later, on April 13, 1926. Ironically, the end came not with a wicked storm but on a lovely spring afternoon, sunny and 62 degrees. According to the book Lantern on Lewes: Where Past Is Present, some government officials had gathered that day to inspect the lighthouse and evaluate the prospects for its preservation. The bureaucrats were all having lunch aboard a ship when a lookout on deck shouted, “It’s gone!”
In another book, The Cape Henlopen Lighthouse, author John W. Beach tells the story of Western Union telegraph operator Roland Webster. He was standing on a nearby bridge, killing time while on lunch break.
“The high spring tide was being pushed along by a strong northeast breeze, and wave after wave crashed on the beach, then slithered in to nibble at the sand hill supporting the lighthouse tower. Finally, at 12:45 p.m., that last bit of sand that meant the difference between support and non-support slipped down the hill toward the sea … and after a tottering moment was followed by tons of brick and stone. …
“A fine mist kicked up as the rubble hit the wave below. Webster blinked and saw it was gone.”
He went into downtown Lewes and broke the news to everyone at Morris’ Drug Store.
The Reno (Nev.) Evening Gazette, May 27, 1926: “[The day the lighthouse fell, it was] as if an ancient warrior were laid low at last. Henlopen … cheated the old devil-sea of many a fine ship and the lives of countless sailors and their charges. … To seamen it will be as if an old and trusted friend has passed away.”
In the hours and days that followed, locals flocked to the beach to see the fallen warrior. Many of them started collecting mementos.
The Wilmington News Journal, April 14, 1926: “The souvenir hunters started removing pieces of the rock of the lighthouse and glass from the windows. One man is reported to have half filled his automobile with rocks from the tower.”
The Wilmington Morning News, April 15, 1926: “Souvenir hunters at the site of the fallen tower are ‘carting off everything in sight,’ according to a report from Lewes yesterday. … Some talk has even been heard of retailing bits of wreckage.”
There was talk again in the days that followed of gathering up the pieces of the beacon and putting the Lighthouse back together, Humpty Dumpty style, either on the Dover Green and the University of Delaware. But those souvenir hunters had already taken away so many rocks, and many other rocks had been smashed into dust as they landed on the ground. There weren’t enough parts left to preserve the whole.
One View of the Final Verdict
As noted up at the top here, Mother Nature was the main culprit. We humans may have accelerated things by building that big breakwater nearby to protect ships and sailors. In the wake of the collapse of the lighthouse, the Dover Republican newspaper pointed toward another accessory in the case—a general public that never got truly worked up enough about saving the iconic structure. Oh sure, those regular folks could point easily enough to the failures of various governmental agencies, but on the other hand:
“Eloquent please were made for [the] preservation [of the lighthouse]. Civic organizations adopted resolutions urging immediate action. The newspapers broadcasted the fact that unless the public would come across with a substantial amount of money, the old Deacon Tower would fall.”
“In the face of all this, the public remained unmoved in so far as supplying the funds needed to save the structure, which long had been abandoned by the Federal Government. Nor were there any state funds available for salvage work.”
“Therefore, the Delaware public has no one except itself to blame for the fact that old Cape Henlopen Light has been reduced to a mass of wreckage. … [That] pile of wreckage should be left on the beach near Lewes as a monument to the indifference of the Delaware public to the fate that befalls landmarks in our commonwealth.”
—written by Jim Duffy and posted on March 21, 20121 for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved.
NOTES AND SOURCES
• In addition to scores of old newspaper articles, I gleaned material for this essay from several books, including Lantern on Lewes: Where the Past is Present, Delaware Lights: A History of Lighthouses in the First State, Shipwrecks and Rescues Along the Barrier Islands of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, and Delaware: and Delaware: A Guide to the First State. Web sources included Wikipedia and Lighthouse Friends, along with quite a few others.