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.
In 1856 congress authorized $25,000 for the erection of a lighthouse on Fenwick Island. The US government paid Mary Hall $50 for ten acres of land where the lighthouse now sits. The land was determined to be the highest elevation on the barrier Island. The Island which stretches from the Indian River Inlet to the Ocean City Inlet was very isolated from the main land and travel to the Island was quite an undertaking. The lighthouse was constructed as a conical structure 87′ tall. The light portion of the top of the tower housed a Fresnel lens that transmitted a beam of light 20 miles out to sea. Construction on the property also consisted of a lighthouse keeper residence that housed the lighthouse keeper’s family and the lighthouse keeper’s assistant’s family. The total project cost came in under budget at a cost of $23,748.96. Probably one of the only projects in congressional history that came in under budget!
On August 1st 1859 the light was lit and the Fenwick Shoals had a marker to keep ships safe from the shallow shoals off the coast of Fenwick Island. In the early days of the lighthouse living was rough. You could only access the island by boating across the Fenwick Ditch. Being so remote the Keeper and Keeper’s assistant’s families had to be pretty self sufficient. The residence was quite small by any standards for 2 families. The Keeper lived on the first floor and the Assistant lived on the second floor. The basement of the house was utilized for a cistern system that collected rainwater for the families. The lighthouse board soon recognized that the original structure was insufficient to house 2 families and in 1878 they authorized the construction of a second residence on the property. Finally in 1881 a second residence was constructed and the Keeper’s family moved into the new residence. The Assistant Keeper’s family took over the original residence and the two families maintained the lighthouse. The state of Delaware also recognized the importance of the lighthouse. In order to make the Island more accessible they constructed the first bridge across the Fenwick ditch in 1880.
The keeper’s maintained the property for the next 60+ years. In the 1940’s the US Government began to sell off the property and automate the lighthouse. The last Lighthouse keeper was Charles L. Gray. When the Government began selling off the property Gray purchased several acres of land surrounding the lighthouse and the Gray family still owns and resides on the property purchased. The two keeper homes were sold to private individuals and remain as private residences today. In 1978 the US Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse and removed the original Fresnel lens. The beacon would lay dormant for several years until a grass roots organization protested the turning off of the light. With the help of local Senator’s, Congressmen, visitors, and locals the State of Delaware was able to obtain ownership of the Lighthouse from the US Coast Guard.
In 1982 the lighthouse was again lit with a symbolic light. The friends of the Lighthouse however pressed the US Coast Guard to return the original Fresnel lens. With a massive effort from the Friends of the Lighthouse the original Fresnel Lens was returned to the place where it had beamed for over 100 years. While the State of Delaware still owns the lighthouse the Friends of the Lighthouse are charged with fundraising and maintaining the iconic structure. The lighthouse is now open for tours in the summertime during weekend hours from 9 am to noon. It is closed if it is raining. If you would like to request a private tour you can contact the “Friends” president Winnie Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org
Previous Tower(s): No
Miscellaneous: Composed of a brick cylinder tower within a brick conical tower; Lighthouse Restored In 1997; Two Keepers’ Houses Now Owned By Private Individuals;
Modern Tower: No
Existing Sound Signal Building: No
Existing Keepers Quarters: Yes
Current Use: as Museum & Private aid to navigation
Owner/Manager: State Of Delaware, Leased to the NEW FRIENDS OF THE FENWICK ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE
Open to the Public? Yes, May to September
Web Site: http://www.fenwickislandlighthouse.org
National Register Status:
Listed: Reference #79000642
Name of Listing: FENWICK ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE STATION
On State List/Inventory? YES; Year Listed: 8/13/1979
Above statistical information provided by National Park Service