Cape Henlopen Beacon - Lewes, Delaware
Painted by Bud Graves
The first of two smaller lighthouses that guarded the tip of Cape Henlopen between 1824 and 1885.
Cape Henlopen Beacon
by Hazel D. Brittingham
Many people familiar with the old Cape Henlopen Lighthouse that fell into the Atlantic Ocean in April of 1926 are lacking in knowledge about a supplementary light deemed necessary as the sands of Cape Henlopen crept relentlessly northward through the years. Each of the smaller additional lighthouses (for two different structures eventually were required) was named the Cape Henlopen Beacon. The new towers sometimes were called "the little lighthouse" or "the second lighthouse." The comparative references were to the lofty Cape Henlopen light dated about 1765.
After the first Cape Henlopen tower had been on duty for nearly 60 years, it was determined that the constant build-up of sand posed great danger to vessels seeking to round the cape as they entered Delaware Bay. Nautical charts serving ship captains would have been unable to keep pace with the coastline change that could spell disaster. So it was in 1824 that Congress authorized the additional lighthouse on Cape Henlopen. The 45-foot stone tower was constructed three quarters of a mile north of the original lighthouse. No keeper's house was provided with the first Beacon, as the keeper of the old light assumed the additional duty of hiking the distance between the two towers several times daily to attend the lamp atop the smaller structure.
By 1854 the need was recognized for a keeper's lodge at the Beacon to house a separate keeper there. A small housing unit was added. A decade later, with the Beacon in perilous physical condition due to continued erosion at water's edge as sand drifted to the north, Congress gave approval to a replacement beacon light at the mobile point of Cape Henlopen. The first supplementary lighthouse was dismantled, and by 1865 the second light known as the Beacon was on station about a mile from the old Cape Henlopen light. In 1875 a fog signal was added, and in 1879 the keeper's dwelling was enlarged to accommodate the two keepers by then assigned to the little lighthouse.
The sea continued to eat away at the sand, and by 1884 the water swirled under the house nearest the point of the cape at practically every high tide. Structural efforts to abate the condition soon would be washed away by the next storm. It was decided to discontinue the Beacon and have its duty assumed by the new lighthouse on the east end of the Delaware Breakwater. The date for this move is given as 1885.
References over the years to "the lighthouse on Cape Henlopen" have generally pointed to the 1765 seven-story construction, but confusion has resulted in records--both official and unofficial. Much of the discrepancy relates to descriptions of the height and shape of the lighthouses. While the old tower exceeded the smaller lighthouses in height and durability, it was the Beacon (two different buildings) that truly marked the point of the cape and warned those behind the ships' wheels to steer clear of the ever-changing coastal extension until it was safe to proceed.
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