Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2011-09-05.
During the 1850s, Shipping traffic along the East Coast of the United States was picking up due to increasing trade with Europe as well as trade among southern and northern ports here in the United States. With this, The Lighthouse Board recognized there was a "dark spot" of nearly sixty miles along the eastern seaboard between Cape Henlopen and Assateague Island, and recommended construction of a lighthouse.
The Lighthouse Board recommended a light of third order be constructed in the Fenwick Island vicinity. Congress authorized $25,000 for the construction of the tower on August 18, 1856. It would be nearly a year and a half before land was purchased. On January 11, 1858, Mary C. Hall had sold a ten acre tract to the government for $50.00.
By the end of 1858, the Fenwick Island Lighthouse was complete as evidenced in A Notice to Mariners, No. 284 which was dated December 29, 1858. It told that the tower was completed, but would not be lit until August 1, 1859, but no reason was given for the six month delay. The final cost of the project was $23,748.96, which included the keeper's dwelling, the land, the tower, and all outbuildings.
For almost two decades things were quiet at the station. Once the assistant keeper was hired sometime in the early 1860s, the house was split. The keeper and his family resided downstairs, while the assistant and his family lived upstairs. In 1878, the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board had recommended an addition to the keeper's dwelling to help with the crowding:
268. Fenwick,s Island, coast of Delaware. - No repairs have been made during the year. A single dwelling at this station is occupied by two keepers with large families, and requires an addition to accommodate them, which will cost $5,000.
It doesn't appear that much was done to help as the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1880 still recommended the addition:
277. Fenwick's Island, sea-coast of Delaware. - Repairs were made to the cellar door, steps, and water-closet; new locks were put on the doors of the dwelling, and the dwelling was painted inside and out. A light, iron railing was put up around the lantern-gallery, and the stove-pipe from the watch-room carried out through the roof of the lantern. The keeper's dwelling needs enlarging, as heretofore reported; estimated cost, $3,000. Arrangements are in progress for renewing parts and repairing other parts of the fencing inclosing the light-house site.
Finally, in 1881, the problem was addressed. Rather than an addition to the keeper's dwelling, which was east of the tower, a new home was built to the west of the tower. The two families could now split up, each having their own residence. The assistant keeper would occupy the original dwelling, while the head keeper and his family was move into the newly constructed residence.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1881 states that the new dwelling was completed and accepted on November 12, 1881. The report also lists that a new detached oil house was constructed on site for the storage of mineral oil, the floor of the cellar of the original keeper's dwelling was re-laid, and a fence was constructed around the new keeper's dwelling.
The tower housed a third order Fresnel lens which was illuminated by single whale oil lamp. This was changed over to mineral oil lamps sometime around 1880 or 1881 as reported in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1881:
289. Fenwick's Island, 20 miles south of Cape Henlopen, Delaware, - On November 12, 1881, the building was completed aud accepted. The old dwelling, now occupied by the assistant keeper, has had the porch and cellar doors repaired. The doors, windows, and frames in the tower were repaired. Third-order mineral-oil lamps have been sent to the station and placed in position.
In 1892, a new bridge was built to connect to the mainland. Before that, access was by boat across Assawoman Bay. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board stated:
400. Fenwick Island, seacoast of Delaware, 20 miles south of Gape Henlopcn, Delaware. - A wooden pile bridge, about 225 feet long and 12 feet wide, with a draw span of 34 feet, was built to connect the island with the mainland and give access to the station. A frame kitchen was added to the assistant keepers' dwelling and the fences were renewed.
1898 would see the United States coping with the Spanish-American War. With this, a telephone was installed in the keeper's quarters connecting it to the Life Saving Station and signal-code flags were supplied to the station. However, the keeper's would never use the flags as no enemy fleets were ever spotted from the tower.
U.S. Coast Guard Archive Photo
Thereafter, things settled into a routine at the station. Not much changed until the lighthouse came under control of the United States Coast Guard in 1939. Sometime in 1940, the lighthouse was automated. In October of 1940, the Coast Guard sold what amounted to three quarters of the property to Charles Gray for $1,610.79. This included several acres as well as the assistant keeper's dwelling. The Coast Guard would later sell the keeper's quarters as well.
In December of 1978, the lighthouse was deactivated. When the Coast Guard left, they removed the Fresnel lens and wiring. At this time, Mr. Paul Pepper, whose grandfather and great grandfather had served as keepers of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse organized a not for profit group called "The Friends of Fenwick Island Lighthouse" to save the lighthouse. Through their efforts, a grant of $15,000 was secured from the state for restoration of the lighthouse. By May of 1982, the group had recovered and reinstalled the third order Fresnel lens and had it relit on May 26, 1982.
Other repairs were made to the metalwork and the entire tower received a new coat of paint in the 1990s. A new group was established in 2007 called the "New" Friends of Fenwick Island Lighthouse which is presided over by Winnie Lewis, the granddaughter of a former keeper. The group has accepted the responsibilities and care of the tower going forward.
- America's Atlantic Coast Lighthouses (6th edition), Jeremy D'Entremont, 2005.
- Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
- Lighthouses of New Jersey and Delaware: History, Mystery, Legends and Lore, Bob Trapani, Jr., 2005.
- Guiding Lights of the Delaware River & Bay, Jim Gowdy & Kim Ruth, 1999.
Directions: Heading south on State Route 1 (Coastal Highway) into Fenwick Island, make a right onto 146th Street. The lighthouse will be up about 220 yards on your right-hand side.
The "New" Friends of Fenwick Island Lighthouse has a website with lots of great information on the history and the keepers of the light at: http://fenwickislandlighthouse.org/
Access: The lighthouse is currently owned by the State of Delaware. Tower closed, grounds open.
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