Today in Transportation History – 1858: The Delaware Coast Is Lit Up

Nearly a year-and-a-half after the U.S. Congress appropriated $25,000 to build a lighthouse on the section of Fenwick Island in Delaware, the federal government paid someone named Mary C. Hall a mere $50 for a 10-acre (4.1-hectare) tract of land for the new structure. This location for the planned Fenwick Island Lighthouse was widely believed to be the highest point in the area. In addition, the site was on a narrow and then-isolated strip of coastline in the southernmost part of Delaware and at that state’s boundary with Maryland.

By the mid-1850s, the need for building a lighthouse there was deemed critical due to the lack of such navigational aids along that section of the Delmarva Peninsula. At the time, the lighthouses closest to Fenwick Island were situated at Cape Henlopen in Delaware (20 miles, or 32.2 kilometers, to the north) and in the portion of Assateague Island that is located in Virginia (60 miles, or 97 kilometers, to the south).

In an 1855 report to Congress, the U.S. Lighthouse Board asserted 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.” 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 . . .”

Construction on Fenwick Island Lighthouse began shortly after the federal government purchased the land for it from Mary C. Hall. U.S. Army Captain William F. Raynolds supervised this construction project. Fenwick Island Lighthouse was completed towards the end of 1858, but it did not begin operations until the summer of the following year.

One of the more unique rescue missions involving Fenwick Island Lighthouse took place on Christmas in 1931. One of the keepers was extinguishing the light up in the brick tower early that morning when he saw a small boat stranded on a sandbar about a half-mile to the south. The keeper made his way to that location and found an unconscious Inuit man clothed in fur garments and huddled in the boat. The keeper then managed to get the man to Fenwick Island Lighthouse. As it turns out, this Inuit had embarked from his native Greenland in the boat several weeks earlier for a solo trip to Alaska via the Panama Canal. After spending a couple of days at the lighthouse to regain his strength and receiving food and other provisions from the keepers, he resumed his ambitious voyage to Alaska.

After almost 120 years of service, Fenwick Island Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1978.  A public effort to save the lighthouse, however, led to its being relit four years later. Fenwick Island Lighthouse eventually underwent a full restoration and was rededicated in 1998.

For more information about Fenwick Island Lighthouse, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fenwick_Island_Light and https://fenwickislandlighthouse.org/the-lighthouse/.

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