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“Once upon a time Mark Twain … said that the only hope of ever accomplishing literary work worth doing was in getting the writer immured in a prison where he would be shut off from all sorts of interruptions. … If utter isolation and quiet solitude [are what Mr. Twain needs, we suggest that] he apply for a job as lighthouse keeper on Cape Henlopen.”

So began a lengthy article that appeared in the New York Sun on April 27, 1890, describing what life was like on then-remote Cape Henlopen. Here are some more highlights:

“The pay is $700 a year. Nevertheless the men of [nearby] Lewes are not all standing in line waiting for a chance to get appointed light keeper. The lighthouse stands three miles from the village in the midst of a desert of yellowish white sand. The road to it is heavy to drive and heavy to walk. When there, the keepers are cut off from almost all civilization.

“The lighthouses on such coasts are most lonesome places.”

‘CLEANLINESS IS ESSENTIAL’

“There is a giant tower, with its fixed white light flaming so high in the air that on favorable nights it has been seen twenty-five miles away. … The Cape Henlopen light is what is called a fixed white light of the first order. The lamp is on top of a white masonry shaft and is 128 feet above the tide.

“… The routine of duty is simple. The night is divided into three watches. A man comes on duty at 2:30 o’clock in the morning. He ordinarily has nothing to do but sit in a chair and keep awake until the almanac says the sun is rising out of the Atlantic. Then he puts out the lamp and begins to clean up.

“The chimney, the lamp itself, every fraction of an inch of surface about the lenses and the glass outside must be wiped with the utmost care. Linen towels ordinarily serve, but sometimes ammonia and at others a white powder used among shore people for cleaning silverware is applied, for dirt that comes from no one knows where is dashed against that lamp in spite of its height from the ground and sea.

“After the glass is cleaned and the bowl of the lamp filled [with fuel] the little room itself must be cleaned and dusted. Then the stairway to the room below, where [another] man on watch sits, must be wiped off, and then the watch room cleaned, and the gallery around the outside as well. Below that is the weary stairway from the bottom of the tower, a distance of eighty-five feet, to be cleaned.

“No structure in the world has so much pains taken with it to keep it absolutely clean as a lighthouse, for perfect cleanliness is essential to a perfect light.”

AVIAN JOY … AND MAYHEM

Cape Henlopen Lighthouse on the Edge“When the wind blows its highest the men have to get down on their hands and knees and crawl from the [keepers’] house to the light tower, and through a dancing cloud of sand at that. When standing up with a can of [fuel] oil in hand they have been lifted from their feet and thrown into the sand bank.

“In summer the heat reflected from the sandy waste about the place is all but intolerable, while in winter no blast is more chilling than that which sweeps from the sea across this desert.

“To a stranger, however, a stay of a few days would prove novel and delightful, if he had a taste for nature. The study of the birds would alone occupy many days. … Not only do the birds dash themselves to death against the lamp, but they gather in great flocks on the gallery about it, where they are so much bewildered that the keepers pick them up and handle them as chickens are handled.

“One night when Keeper Joseph was on watch and only the moan of the surf disturbed the air, there came a crash in the lamp over his head that [was so loud it] made him think the end of the world had come. After gathering his wits together … he found that five mallards flying in a line had struck the glass. The first one crashed through the outer glass and the rest followed through the hole. The lenses were broken.”

LONELINESS … EVEN WHEN PRETTY GIRLS COME PICNICKING

Cape Henlopen Lighthouse with Carriage“One of the troubles of the breakwater lightkeepers is the loneliness. They get very tired of solitude. They are allowed to bring their families there for a visit occasionally, but not often nor for a long stay. There is good fishing off the breakwater in the season, but it grows monotonous.

“Picnic parties with pretty girls come [out from town] on occasion, but the light keepers, being married men, do not take much interest.”

–Posted by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC in March 2024. Thank you for spending a little time on this site!

NOTE #1: The aerial photo up top here is in the collection of the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Del.

NOTE #2: By 1925–just 35 years after the article quoted here–the sea had advanced into the shoreline at Cape Henlopen in ways that seriously encroached on the lighthouse. The beacon would tumble into the ocean the following year, 1926. I tell the story of that dark day here, in a piece that also includes much more background about the lighthouse.

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