The Cape Henlopen Lighthouse

by Dave on October 1, 2010

by James Diehl

Delaware Public Archives photo

For more than 160 years, she held faithful vigil over the often treacherous waters of coastal Delaware, her far-reaching light shining for mile upon mile across the Atlantic Ocean.

Then one day, the once mighty frame of the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse finally fell victim to the forces of Mother Nature. But the memory of the one-time Sussex County landmark lives on today, welcoming visitors to the seaside resort of Rehoboth Beach.
Members of the Village Improvement Association, a local women’s group in Rehoboth, purchased a one-third replica of the historic light in the 1950s for a paltry sum of $50. Today, that lighthouse stands in the center of a traffic circle in the “Nation’s Summer Capital,” providing an important link between the coastal Delaware of today and that of centuries past.

In the VIA’s 1956 literature promoting the light’s restoration, then-president Mrs. Melvin W. Fell puts it best:

“This replica of the Henlopen Lighthouse welcomes the coming and speeds the parting guest, reminding him of the faithful old lighthouse which for nearly two centuries sent its beam, visible for 40 miles across the sea.”

Fed up with losing men, cargo and fistfuls of money as a result of shipwrecks off the Delaware coast, Philadelphia ship owners and merchants began raising funds in the 1760s to build what would become the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse. Her simple mission – to keep their vessels safe from the treacherous waters near the mouth of the Delaware Bay.

The result was the grandest lighthouse ever to grace the shores of coastal Delaware. But the history of the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse is one filled with ingenuity, with tragedy and with more than one tale of a war-torn new nation’s battle for independence.

Indeed, it was a handful of King George’s navy men who, in 1777, very nearly burned the lighthouse to the ground because of a disagreement over a mouth-watering herd of cattle.

The men were from a British frigate named the Roebuck, Redcoats sent to shore by their captain to gather food for a ship full of starving British soldiers who had been blockading the waters near Cape Henlopen.

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.

The burning temporarily closed the historic structure, but American ingenuity and grit eventually won out and the lighthouse reopened bigger and better than ever seven years later.

But in a true sense of irony, the famed Cape Henlopen Lighthouse’s fate had already been sealed by Mother Nature herself. Originally resting more than 125 feet above sea level, with walls that measured 60 feet in height and were 6 feet thick at its base, the symbol of coastal Delaware had been built on shifting sands that essentially doomed it from its very beginning – from the day the lighthouse was built, it was inevitable that it would one day fall into the ocean.

Whenever a storm threatened the area, residents would come out and watch with bated breath, fully expecting the historic light to topple over. Finally, on a stormy day in April of 1926, Mother Nature had the final say as the once mighty structure unceremoniously fell into the sea.

Gone, but not forgotten – visitors throughout coastal Delaware today claim to have pieces from the historic light displayed in their homes.

It is perhaps the most fitting way of paying homage to the towering beacon of light that once guarded the mouth of the Delaware Bay – may she rest in peace.

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