Restoring History

After suddenly going dark in 1978, the Fenwick Island lighthouse has been rescued by the state of Delaware and the New Friends of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse, which is entrusted with protecting the local icon’s legacy

Written by Brian Shane  /  Photography by Scott Kraller

The lighthouse at Fenwick Island had been guiding mid-Atlantic mariners without interruption for nearly 120 years, when, in the winter of 1978, it suddenly went dark. Without warning, the Coast Guard had decommissioned the site. They disassembled the original lighthouse lens, packed it up and shipped it off to some government attic for surplus. And nobody seemed to care.

“No one really took a general interest in it, except certain citizens,” said Tracey Lewis, with the advocacy group New Friends of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse. “No one took care of it. It was historic property, but nobody really cared. They just sold it.”

Today, the lighthouse keeper’s home — also sold for “surplus” at the time — is back under state control and in the middle of a major renovation that will restore it to its Victorian-Gothic glory. What’s more, the reconditioned property will be leased to the New Friends, a local group of champions who took it upon themselves to protect the lighthouse and its legacy.

Lewis, 55, and her mother, Winnie Lewis, 76, aren’t just enthusiastic history buffs. For them, the lighthouse is literally part of their family history: They’re descendants of a former assistant lighthouse keeper, William Pepper, who fathered 10 children and was grandfather to many more.

Much of the native Fenwick-area population, they say, traces its roots to the Pepper progeny. This makes the Lewises another link in the chain of generations of lighthouse keepers and their families who kept watch over the tower, their community and the sea itself.

You can find mother and daughter at the lighthouse on weekends, cheerfully opening the place up for tourists, and commingling their stories about Fenwick history with old family tales — like how Winnie’s grandmother was known to gather children in a horse-drawn wagon and take them to school.

“When I was a kid,” Winnie Lewis recalled, “when you came off the Fenwick bridge, it was a dirt road that came down here. No trailers until the ’50s. It was marsh, shrubs, farmland, pine trees and lots of ’em. It just used to be a tiny little quiet place.”

She also believes it was the lighthouse itself that lit the spark of community in what was once an isolated, desolate place.

“It was really rough to live here. The people who were here were very poor. There is more of a story here than just a lighthouse that blinks.”

The whale-oil lamp first flickered from atop the Fenwick Island Lighthouse on August 1, 1859, sending a beacon visible 15 miles out to sea. After 160 years, remarkably, the lighthouse tower itself has never been altered. Even all 112 stairs on the cast-iron staircase are original — but nobody gets to traverse them anymore, for safety reasons.

In the early 19th century, there was no lighthouse to guide vessels over the 60 miles of Atlantic shoreline, including the dangerous Fenwick Shoals between Cape Henlopen and Assateague Island.

But in 1855, the U.S. Lighthouse Board reported to Congress “a light-house in the vicinity of Fenwick’s Island will serve to guide vessels from the southern port.” Records show it cost $23,748 to build the lighthouse and keeper’s residence, or about $700,000 in today’s dollars. The first keeper, John Smith, was paid a government salary of $400 a year.

Like many coastal Delaware communities in the 19th century, Fenwick Island had once been home to Christian camp meetings. Local families came from neighboring towns like Roxana, Dagsboro, Selbyville and Frankford, to spend summers at the beach in worship. They crafted makeshift cottages, not much better than tents, and circled their temporary homes around a tabernacle for all-day Bible study. There was no electricity, no running water.

“It was like a little village,” Winnie Lewis said. “They had a place where you could buy hamburgers; they had an ice cream place. My husband’s grandmother played the organ at the tabernacle some Sundays.”

Historically, early travelers headed east into Fenwick had to cross a muddy culvert over a flimsy wagon bridge. While today it’s a wide and navigable canal flowing under Route 54, beside Harpoon Hanna’s restaurant, back then locals just called it “the ditch.” Winnie Lewis recalled its origin story.

“It was a ditch,” she said. “They had cows here, and they would escape to the other side. People got tired of chasing them back and forth. They started digging, and they made the ditch wider. You had the current from the big bay to the little bay, and that made it bigger.”

The lighthouse station once covered 10 acres, but the government whittled down that acreage over the years, by land transfers and private sales. All that remains of the original federal property is the lighthouse and the home now under renovation. The facility has been on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) since 1979.

Locals rallied in the early 1980s, not only to give ownership of the lighthouse to the state of Delaware but also to re-illuminate the light itself. Friends of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse (led by another William Pepper descendant,
W. Paul Pepper) successfully lobbied state and local officials.

Delaware took over the facility, and its original third-order Fresnel lens was taken back out of government storage and replaced atop the 89-foot-tall tower. With it, the Fenwick Light shone again, in 1982 — though the beam that now shines intermittently from a 660-watt bulb is purely decorative.

The project’s next phase, which has not yet been funded, is interior renovation, starting with a design stage. Lynn Riley, a planner and cultural asset manager with the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, which is overseeing the project, expects the interior will be gutted, and crews would replace systems like electrical and plumbing. When they’re done, the lighthouse keeper’s home will be not just an exhibit of life in the 19th century but also the new home of the New Friends of the Fenwick Lighthouse.