In days gone by, sailors looked for the beacon on dark nights. The Fenwick Island Lighthouse warned ships away from the shallows that could trap or shred a boat to bits, depending on the weather. And lighthouse staff were so dedicated to their jobs that they lived next door.
Today, the State of Delaware wants to show people a slice of that life by renovating the keeper’s house into a public historical site.
Delaware has long owned the lighthouse and more recently acquired the keeper’s house, just to the west, said Tim Slavin, director of Delaware’s Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs.
“We are looking at creating that keeper’s house into a kind of community site and interpretive center for lectures or gatherings of any kind,” Slavin said. “We’re also going to do a little better job of marrying the two parcels together, … create a campus there, so when people visit, it’s more than just two parcels.”
It’s a tight fit, as the two tiny lots comprise about a fifth of an acre at 146th Street.
In the 1850s, the lighthouse was a lonely tower set among the Fenwick sands. Now it’s crowded in beach development: beach houses, hotels, condos and summertime trailers.
Two residential homes still stand on either side of the tower — both of historical significance. The State of Delaware’s plans are under way for the western house, while the eastern house remains privately owned. The eastern house was built first, as rather cramped quarters for the keeper, the assistant keeper and both their families. The western house (now also owned by the State of Delaware) was added in 1881, at which time the keeper moved into the new house, leaving the assistant keeper in the original.
“It’s very exciting. We’ve had input from the community as to the general plans,” said Slavin. “Now we will bring those plans into detail. The work that we do — it’s about historic preservation. We look at the way the building was built and its period of significance, architectural details on windows and shutters or siding…”
“So it’ll go back to looking very much the way it did when it was built,” said Richard Mais, Fenwick Island Town Council member. “We’re looking forward to it.”
Although the lighthouse is technically two blocks outside of Fenwick Island town limits, the tower is a beacon and symbol for the whole area.
“It’s an iconic site. Everyone knows the Fenwick Island Lighthouse,” Slavin said. “We want to change that a little bit, from everyone knowing it to everyone going to it,” he said.
Their goal is a site the community will be even more proud to show off and able to access more fully. The site could even be a venue for special events, such as group gatherings, wedding receptions or a garden party.
Of course, the project could take three to five years to complete. The State’s budget is slim this year, so the project will be tackled in phases, with some hope that it could attract private funding.
Now, they’re in the design phase.
When the State of Delaware restores buildings, they start from the outside: stabilize the structure; restore windows, doors and roofs; improve electric service and plumbing; add handicapped access; and remove any asbestos or lead paint.
The National Park Service must also sign off, since the lighthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places.
First illuminated in 1859, the 87-foot lighthouse stares straight across the road from the Maryland border. It also overlooks one of the three Transpeninsular Line markers — large stones erected centuries ago to separate William Penn’s three counties (now the state of Delaware) from Charles Calvert’s Maryland.
Fenwick Island Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1978 by the U.S. Coast Guard. But volunteers petitioned to have the light turned back on, so now a more symbolic electric light shines each night through a classic third-order Fresnel lens.
Thanks to the revived Friends of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse, the grounds are open in summertime. People may visit the tiny lot and view historic artifacts. The volunteers have done the legwork to fundraise, landscape, welcome visitors and other day-to-day work.
“They’re wonderful. They keep the site open for us,” Slavin said. “We haven’t figured out how to operate the site once we’re up and going. That’s a dialog and conversation to have in the future.”
But will the public ever witness the most thrilling part of a lighthouse — the climb?
Currently, the general public is not permitted to climb the lighthouse. Mais suggested this was a deed restriction from when the federal government gave the lighthouse property to the State.
There’s no word yet on whether the State will explore the option of opening the tower.
The non-profit Friends group is online at www.fenwickislandlighthouse.org. History and visitor hours are posted online.