Pirates, Lighthouses, and Land Deals
July 24, 2015 | Ashley Brosnahan

The Fenwick shoals off the coast of Fenwick Island has helped define the little beach town in the south eastern most corner of the state of Delaware.  If it wasn’t for this natural underwater feature Fenwick Island may not have become the great little coastal Delaware town that it is today.  Situated about 5 miles east of the town of Fenwick Island the Fenwick shoals has claimed quite a few ships.  In order to warn Mariners from the perilous hazard to navigation, the Fenwick Lighthouse was completed in 1859.  Prior to its erection the barrier island was just sand dunes and salt marshes.  The town is steeped in U.S. History dating back to land disputes between William Penn and Lord Baltimore.
The history of the land mass that is now Fenwick Island dates back to 1681.  During this period in history King Charles of England granted William Penn 29,000,000 acres of land.  This tract of land is basically now the state of Pennsylvania and Delaware.  Immediately upon the granting of this land a huge discrepancy arose between William Penn and Lord Baltimore.  Lord Baltimore was the owner of the Maryland territory.  As Penn had acquired, through the land grant, much of the State of Delaware an argument ensued over the borders of the property.  This controversy raged through four generations and was not finally settled until 1768.  By 1750 all the land disputes had been settled with the exception of the Southernmost east-west boarder.  During that year the two agreed to have surveyors stake out the border between the two properties.     The first survey stake was driven at a point 139 perches from the Atlantic Ocean in between four mulberry trees. This is the exact location of the Fenwick lighthouse today.  Since a permanent marker could not be set at a point on the beach the survey team continued 6 miles westward and set another marker.  At this point in time the survey team abandoned the project because the weather was too bad, their cabin had burned down and they were suffering from exposure.  In April of 1751 the Commissioners reconvened at the original start point.  It was agreed upon that this would be the beginning point and the previous work was approved.  On April 26th1751 a granite monument was placed at this point with the Calverts arms on the South side and William Penn’s arms on the North side.  Other stones were then set along the east west line in 5 mile intervals to become the southern border of the State of Delaware.

Soon after the establishment of this line Lord Baltimore died.  This delayed the process of establishing the North South border of Maryland and Delaware for about 10 years.  In 1760 the descendants of Penn and Lord Baltimore hired another survey crew to establish the 81 mile border to the top arc of the State of Delaware.  The surveyors did such a poor job establishing this line that the families agreed to hire the esteemed Engineering Firm of Mason and Dixon to complete the job.  In 1763 Mason and Dixon arrived in southern Delaware and accepted the East-West line as the correct and true border and then deemed it Trans Penisular Line. Mason and Dixon then plotted out the rest of the North-South line to the arc of Delaware.  This 223 mile long survey is now know in history as the famous Mason Dixon Line.

While all of this information is fascinating U.S. history the land deals that Lord Baltimore was making while all of this discrepancy was going on are even more intriguing. During the early 18th century Fenwick Island was more of an Island than it is today.  As a barrier island several inlets that no longer exist had been cut through to the Assawoman bay.  This area generally from Northern Ocean City to an inlet just North of the Delaware Maryland board was known as Fishing Harbor.  The inlets have since been silted in by storms.  A bold seafaring man named William Fassett was forced overboard by pirates, off the Atlantic coast and swam up to the beach in Fishing Harbor.  Legend has it that Fassett was so thankful that he had made it to shore that he would one day own the stretch of Atlantic coast known now as Fenwick Island.

Even though William Penn and Lord Baltimore were having the land dispute about the southern portions of the Delaware coast Lord Baltimore had laid claim to the coast from the Maryland Delaware border to Cape Henlopen.  In today’s real estate world this is known as the Baltimore Hundred.  Lord Baltimore being the land dealer that he was granted to William Stevens in 1681 “All that tract or parcel of land called Fishing Harbor lying on the seaboard side, an island to the northeast of the mouth of the St. Martins River, and little to the eastward of a narrow passage of marshes between the heads of two inlets of water."  A few years after acquiring the Fishing Harbor property Stevens died.  His estate then sold the land in 1692 to Thomas Fenwick.  The property was sold for 30£ Sterling.  In today’s terms this would be about $1,700.00.  Quite a good deal eh?   The area was then renamed Fenwick Island.  Thomas Fenwick was a refined gentleman and had little or no interest in the barren Barrier Island.  He spent very little time visiting his property and never established a home there.  Fenwick died in 1708 and the property passed on to his Daughter Mary.

It was about this time in history that Fassett was forced overboard by pirates and swam to Fenwick Island.  Little is known about the time period that Fassett spent on the island, but through some circumstances he came to know Mary Fenwick.  Fassett and Fenwick were married and Fassett fulfilled his dream to own the slice of the Delaware Coast.  William and Mary spent their married life living on and off the Island but it never grew into a bustling coastal settlement.  During this time period the island was primarily a fishing camp.  As the years passed the area started a slow growth.
The nation was growing and as such the fastest form of transportation was the Atlantic Ocean.  Merchant ships that were transiting to the ports of Lewes, Wilmington and Philadelphia would be approaching from the South.  This southerly approach would lead them close to the Coast of Fenwick Island and the treacherous Fenwick Shoal.  The natural sand shoal which rises from depths of 60’ of water to 16’ of water caused many groundings and quite a few sinking of Merchant ships.  In order to warn mariners, the U.S. Congress authorized the construction of the Fenwick Island lighthouse in 1856.  The lighthouse position would be the location of the granite monument positioned by Lord Baltimore and William Penn.  The area for the lighthouse was positioned in 1857 and the foundation was set.  It took 2 more years for the light house to be constructed.  On August 1, 1859 the lighthouse was completed and lit.  The total cost for construction of the lighthouse was $23,748.96.  The lighthouse stands a third of a mile inland it is 83’ tall, it’s 15,000 candlepower light flashes white every 3 seconds and is visible up to 15 miles out to sea.

This was the beginning of the growth of Fenwick Island.  After the lighthouse was complete two residences were built next to the beacon.  The residences housed the lighthouse tenders.  Shortly thereafter a lifesaving station was constructed just to the north of the light house.  These first few families were the very first permanent residence of the island.  In order to supply the families and the few other permanent residence that were beginning to inhabit the island a small bridge was constructed across the Fenwick ditch in 1880.  The strong currents through the narrow cut led to the bridges demise and in 1892 a wooden pile draw bridge was constructed.  Now with a reliable connection to the main land a few cabins were built in the sand dunes for family retreats.  These early cabins had no indoor plumbing, electricity and were lit by kerosene lights.  It was primitive living at best, but the pristine beaches and excellent fishing kept people there.  Since it was such a primitive area the main artery to the mainland had to be well maintained.  All supplies from kerosene to ice had to pass over the Fenwick ditch bridge.  The pile drawbridge was replaced again in 1934.

Around this time Fenwick Island had grown to a sizeable Coastal Beach town.  There were many cottages dotting the landscape and they were beginning to spread further into the state of Delaware’s property.  In 1941 the state of Delaware notified all of the cabin owners that they would need to purchase the land they were on.  The 1942 the state began selling ocean front lots for $200 and street side lots for $100.  All of the cabin owners bought their land and had their slice of the Delaware resort. It was shortly after this that WW II ended and the beach town began to blossom.  The ocean side streets were filing up with year round and summertime residents.  The growth was substantial and the year round residents were fearful that the town may grow too big and lose some of the small town charm.  Ocean City to the south was well on its way to a large beach town.  So in order to maintain the small town feel the Town of Fenwick incorporated in 1953.  The town shortly thereafter annexed the portion west of route one.  There is still a small portion of the town that remains unincorporated.  The section that runs east of route one from Atlantic Street to the Delaware Maryland border remains unincorporated.  The residents that lived in this section of town voted not to become part of the town.  They found the intentions of the town to be too restrictive of their lifestyle.

The Town of Fenwick Island has come a long way since the William Fassett laid his tracks in the sand.  Today the town has many wonderful shops, entertainment and eateries.   Of course the main attraction has always been the water.  Whether it be fishing and waterskiing in the back bays or soaking up the rays on the Atlantic coastline everyone who lives and vacations here knows the feeling that William Fassett had when he first arrived.  They all want to own a piece of Fenwick Island!



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