Fenwick Island makes its mark with lighthouse, famous survey

Date Published: 
September 2013
The Fenwick Island Lighthouse.

Just a few feet north of the Transpeninsular Line stands the more than 150-year-old Fenwick Island Lighthouse. Both landmarks mark the site of an early American land controversy between William Penn and Lord Baltimore that began in 1681 and would last generations, until finally being settled in 1768.

Local resident John Bunting wrote to the Library of Congress in 1953, requesting information about the history of the lighthouse. The response noted that surveyors had arrived in Fenwick Island in December of 1750 to mark the dividing line between the colonial lands of Penn and Lord Baltimore’s colony of Maryland.

The Congressional letter stated, “They drove a stake at a point 139 perches west of the ‘Main Ocean’ at a group of four mulberry trees where the lighthouse now stands. Then they measured east to the ‘Verge of the Ocean’ and began the line there. They could put no permanent mark at the water’s edge, but they measured some six miles west and then quit, for the weather was bad, their cabin had burned up and the exposure was great.”

In April of 1751, John Watson and William Parsons of Pennsylvania and John Emory and Thomas Jones of Maryland were sent to survey the area again. On April 26, 1751, a stone was set where the stake had been previously been driven, marking the border between Maryland and Delaware, or the Transpeninsular Line.

The south side of the stone is marked by the arms of Lord Baltimore, and the north side of the stone features the arms of the House of Penn. The original stone still stands today, now in front of the lighthouse.

When Lord Baltimore died, a new agreement was formed in 1760. Two English engineers, Mason and Dixon, were hired to take over the surveying job. They arrived in America in 1763, and after five years of work, came up with what is now accepted as the Mason-Dixon Line, ending the nearly century-long controversy.

The Fenwick Island Lighthouse, however, was not erected until 1859. The beacon was constructed to serve as a guide for ships from southern ports that were bound for Delaware. At the time, the Fenwick shoal made it dangerous for trade ships headed to Philadelphia, and the lighthouse was implemented so that ships could fall in with the coast when the Cape Henlopen lighthouse was not visible due to poor weather.

Before the lighthouse existed, there had been a 60-mile gap between the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse, which sits at the southern entrance to the Delaware Bay, and the lighthouse on Assateague Island. To solve the issue, Congress approved $25,000 for the new lighthouse in 1856 and purchased a 10-acre tract of land from Mary C. Hall for only $50 two years later.

The exact cost of the lighthouse was $23,748.96. It stands .3 miles inshore on the coast and 87 feet high. Before it was decommissioned, it flashed every three seconds and was visible for 15 miles out to sea.

The construction of the lighthouse was completed Dec. 29, 1858, but it wouldn’t be lit until Aug. 1 of the following year. John Smith was the lighthouse’s first keeper. In 1878, the lighthouse board began petitioning for funds for a second dwelling next to the structure, when an assistant keeper was assigned to duty.

The Bureau of Lighthouses took over for the Lighthouse Board in 1910. The United States Coast Guard took control in 1931, before the federal government finally took over in 1981, just a few years after the lighthouse was formally decommissioned.

In 1978, the lighthouse was deactivated after the Coast Guard had sold off most of the surrounding land, including the house belonging to Charles Gray, the last keeper of the lighthouse. The ownership of the lighthouse transferred to the State of Delaware in 1981.

The decommissioning had caught many of the locals off guard, including Paul and Dorothy Pepper. Paul Pepper’s grandfather had been an assistant keeper at the lighthouse, and his great grandfather was the lighthouse’s third keeper, so he and his wife launched a campaign to restore the light.

Their effort finally proved successful when the State of Delaware leased the lighthouse to the Friends of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse. Paul Pepper was elected as president of the group, restoring a less powerful light than the original to the lighthouse the following year.

The restoration of the lighthouse began in 1997, with its original third-order Fresnel lens was also restored. Pepper was succeeded as president of the Friends group in 1992 by Oliver H. Cropper, who helped raise more than $100,000 for its upkeep.

The New Friends of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse took over the lighthouse’s care in 2007, led by Winnie Lewes, granddaughter of a former lighthouse keeper. It continues to be operated on a limited schedule and is open to the public from May to September. Today, it serves as a historical landmark for the area, a part of Fenwick’s history that stands frozen in time.

One of the members of the New Friends of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse looked back on the lighthouse’s glory days fondly: “As children, we all came to the beach and it was all about seeing the light from the lighthouse,” she recalled, “It twirled around and the light shown for 15 miles into our cottage windows. That’s why we’re all still here. There’s something calming about the light from a lighthouse. It was special.”

In the future, the organization plans on implementing a museum for the lighthouse, which is already recognized as a historical landmark on the National Register of Historic places. “The plans of our group are to, hopefully, get a museum for the lighthouse and expand so that more people around here understand our history,” said the New Friends member.

After more than a century and a half, the light may not shine quite as bright as it once did, but as long as its Friends are involved, it will always stand as a symbol of Fenwick’s rich maritime history.

For more information on the lighthouse’s history, its current operations and availability to the public, visit www.fenwickislandlighthouse.org.