Cape Henlopen Beacon
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Cape Henlopen Lighthouse
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Cape Henlopen Lighthouse
by Hazel D. Brittingham
On Easter Monday of 1926, when Lewes and Rehoboth residents made their annual trek to the Great Dune on the oceanfront, they found the abandoned Cape Henlopen Lighthouse officially off-limits. As tradition dictated, young and old rolled their colorful Easter eggs, and themselves too, down the sand hill. Any hope of visiting the 161-year-old lighthouse on that day was dashed, however, as Coast Guardsmen were on duty to prohibit sightseers from getting too close, for safety's sake.
One week and one day later, on Tuesday, April 13, Destiny and Doom collided shortly before 1 p.m., when the second oldest lighthouse structure in the U.S. surrendered to the loss of sand and abundance of tide. Cape Henlopen Lighthouse had stood valiantly since about 1765 when British shipping interests initiated the construction of a sorely needed navigational aid on Cape Henlopen.
The tower, octagonal in design and standing seven stories high, was constructed of granite brought from northern Delaware. The illuminating apparatus was atop the tower which itself stood atop a lofty sand dune. The landmark had been planted about a quarter of a mile from the water's edge in the midst of a pine and cedar forest. (Inaccuracies abound regarding the lighthouse's shape, height, and distance from the water, and appear even in material considered reliable.)
One penman, recording the construction of the structure, wrote that, "It bids fair to endure until the final wreck of all things shall destroy it." How chagrined he would have been if, at 1 o'clock on April 13, 1926, he were able to witness the demolition as a result of the toll of time, tide, and vagaries of the sand.
Here are some recollections of those who "saw 'er go" on that bright, sunshiny spring day with strong NE breezes accompanied by a thermometer reading of 62 degrees.
Some spectators saw the doom of the tower from the sea, and some from land. The crew of the pilot boat Philadelphia had a front-row seat, and personnel at the Radio Station on Cape Henlopen had a land-based ringside seat.
Irony headlines the gathering that day of a group of government officials planning to inspect the foundation of the lighthouse. The officers were aboard a ship enjoying lunch while one remained on deck with binoculars. After rushing below shouting out, "It's gone!" the eyewitness told that the lighthouse seemed to be leaning more than usual and it suddenly crumpled into three sections and fell onto the beach. Upon "inspecting" the pile of rubble that afternoon, the men were no doubt amazed that the keeper's house had not accompanied her spouse in the fall, but tottered precariously on the sandy ridge. Capt. John Wingate, in command of the adjacent Cape Henlopen Coast Guard Station at the time, reported that it appeared to him that the foundation had just stood all it could and it "slipped down the slope." Noting that he and his lookout man rushed to the scene of destruction, Capt. Wingate then uttered the truth of the ages: "There wasn't anything we could do about it."
Attempts to do something about the perilous condition of sand erosion over the years included the placement of gravel and loads of pine tops, planting of underwood and weeds, and construction of rip-rap, jetties, groins, sea walls, and bulkheads. Even the appointment by Delaware's governor in 1925 of the Henlopen Lighthouse Preservation Commission failed to intimidate Mother Nature as she made her advances.
Mr. Rowland Brewer of Lewes' Western Union office had enjoyed his lunch hour and was leaning on the bridge as he looked toward the cape. He blinked, opened his eyes and couldn't believe them: the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse was gone! He hurried to Art Morris' drug store and spread the word. The druggist checked the clock; it was nearly one.
On Pilottown Road a housewife, alerted to the possibility that the days of the lighthouse were numbered, was combining her interest in its welfare with the progress of the pot boiling away on her stove. She made a regular run from window to pot. From window to pot and back to window--and the slate of her horizon had been wiped clean. Never before in her life had she glanced in that direction and not viewed that friendly tower.
Understandably, the beloved Cape Henlopen lighthouse had assumed a personality of its own in the minds and hearts of area folk. Even after "dying" in 1926, she remains a landmark memory. May she rest in peace.
Photos are courtesy of the Archives and Historic Records
under Delaware State Museums,Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs
©copyright 1997 Hazel D. Brittingham and Jim C. Ippolito