As noted in an earlier FreightWaves Classics article, The 1st United States Congress met from March 4, 1789, to March 4, 1791, during the first two years of George Washington’s presidency. On August 7, 1789, that very first session of Congress approved an Act establishing and supporting lighthouses, beacons, buoys and public piers. Those first Members of Congress understood how important navigational aids and infrastructure were to the economy of the new nation. Trade with other nations was dependent on ships being able to sail safely to and from the United States.The United States Lighthouse Establishment (USLHE) was created and operated under the Department of the Treasury. All U.S. lighthouse ownership was transferred to the government, which became the general lighthouse authority (GLA).
The United States Lighthouse Board was established by Congress in 1851 to replace the USLHE as the second federal agency to be responsible for the construction and maintenance of all lighthouses and navigation aids in the United States. The Lighthouse Board was also housed in the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and existed between 1851 and 1910.
The need for a lighthouse
Since records have been kept there have been more than 2,400 shipwrecks in the waters off the Delaware coast to the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
Fenwick Island is a barrier island that lies at the very southern border of Delaware with Maryland. This area is known as the Delmarva (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) Peninsula. By the 1850s, an increasing number of shipwrecks near the Fenwick Shoals (which were about six miles off-shore of Fenwick Island) prompted the Lighthouse Board to recommend the construction of a lighthouse to help ships avoid the shoals.
At the time, the lighthouses closest to Fenwick Island were located at Cape Henlopen, Delaware (20 miles to the north) and on the portion of Assateague Island that is located in Virginia (60 miles to the south). The need for a lighthouse on Fenwick Island was considered critical because of the lack of navigational aids in that area of the Delmarva Peninsula.
In a report to Congress in 1855, the Board stated that “a light-house in the vicinity of Fenwick’s Island will serve to guide vessels from the southern ports, bound into the Delaware [River], and also the great coasting trade with the same or a more northern destination.” In addition, the report also noted, “It is very common for ships coming from the eastward to fall in with the coast considerably to the southward of Cape Henlopen, and in thick weather, a light on Fenwick’s Island would serve to ascertain their position when the Henlopen light was invisible…”
Congress agreed with the Lighthouse Board and in 1856 appropriated $25,000 to establish a lighthouse on Fenwick Island.
Building the lighthouse
On this date in 1858, the federal government purchased a 10-acre tract of land on which to build the lighthouse. The cost of the land was $50.
The proposed location for the Fenwick Island Lighthouse was widely believed to be the highest point in the area. Also, the site was on a narrow and then-isolated strip of coastline in the southernmost part of Delaware. The site was just feet from the Transpeninsular Marker that serves as the boundary between Delaware and Maryland.
The lighthouse’s 87-foot tower was built using an unusual design. The outer brick tower is conical; however, a second inner brick tower is an 8-foot diameter cylinder. U.S. Army Captain William F. Raynolds supervised the construction of the lighthouse, which was completed near the end of 1858. However, the lighthouse did not begin regular operations until the summer of 1859.
The lighthouse’s lamp was lit officially on August 1,1859. The lighthouse was equipped with a “third-order Fresnel lens.” These lenses were named for their inventor, physicist Augustin Fresnel. His lenses were designed to collect and focus light rays “into a horizontal beam far more efficiently than a reflector system.” Fresnel’s “optic array increased light output” significantly from reflector systems, with as much as “80% of the light being transmitted over 20 miles out to sea.” The first Fenwick Island Light beam was visible from 15 miles away in the ocean. The first lamp burned whale oil.
The light keeper’s residence was built just east of the tower. The project’s cost was just under $24,000. For the first 20+ years of the lighthouse’s operation, two families were housed in the residence, which had been built for only one family. The keeper and his family lived on the first floor; the assistant keeper and his family lived on the second floor. After 20 years, the Lighthouse Board recommended an addition to the residence; in 1881, an entirely new residence was built just west of the tower. The head keeper and his family moved into the new quarters; the assistant keeper and his family remained in the original.
The Fenwick Island Light Station was extremely isolated for more than 20 years. To access the Delaware mainland, “the Ditch” was crossed by boat. “The Ditch” was a large canal of the Assawoman Bay that flowed to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1880 the first bridge across “the Ditch” to the mainland was constructed. That first bridge has been replaced several times since then. The current bridge is constructed of concrete and was built by the State of Delaware in 1958.
A unique rescue
Over the decades, numerous shipwrecks were prevented by the Fenwick Island Lighthouse. On Christmas 1931 one of the more unique rescue missions occurred. One of the keepers was in the brick tower early on Christmas morning, extinguishing the light for the daylight hours. He spotted a small boat beached on a sandbar about one half-mile to the south. The keeper hiked to the sandbar and found “an unconscious Inuit man clothed in fur garments and huddled in the boat.” The keeper was able to get the man back to the lighthouse. The Inuit had left his native Greenland in the boat several weeks earlier for a solo trip to Alaska via the Panama Canal. He spent a couple of days at the lighthouse recuperating. The keepers gave him food and other provisions and resumed his ambitious voyage to Alaska.
Changes in oversight
The Lighthouse Board was replaced by a civilian Lighthouse Service and moved jurisdictionally under the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1910. Then, in 1939, the Lighthouse Service was merged into the United States Coast Guard.
Like many other Coast Guard lighthouses, the Fenwick Island Lighthouse was automated in the late 1940s. The federal government sold off most of the original 10 acres to the last keeper, whose family still resides on that property. The two keepers’ houses are private homes.
After almost 120 years of service, the Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse in 1978. The light was turned off, and its Fresnel lens was removed. Residents of Delaware, Maryland and visitors from around the world protested the Coast Guard’s actions and petitioned that the light be turned back on. After three years of darkness, the Coast Guard transferred ownership of the lighthouse to the State of Delaware.
That led to the Fenwick Island Lighthouse’s light being relit in 1982. The lighthouse eventually underwent a full restoration and was rededicated in 1998.