Cape Henlopen Ligthhouse

Nov. 1, 2019

Cape Henlopen Ligthhouse, Cape Henlopen, near Lewes, Delaware

Originally built in 1767.


Location: "On cape (Del.)
Station Established: 1767
Year Current Tower(s) First Lit: 1769
Operational: No 
Automated: N/A 
Deactivated: 1924; tower collapsed due to erosion in 1926
Foundation Materials: 
Construction Materials: 
Tower Shape: 
Markings/Pattern: White
Characteristic: Flashing white with red sector
Relationship to Other Structure: 
Original Lens: 
Fog Signal: Reed horn: blast--2 seconds, silent--13 seconds; Bell (Hand) if horn is disabled, 1 stroke every 10 seconds.

Historical Information:

Cape Henlopen Lighthouse was completed in 1769, part of the funds to erect it being raised by a £3,000 lottery. Even though the structure was within the limits of Delaware, the 200 acres on which it was erected was granted by the late proprietors of Pennsylvania to the Board of Wardens for the purpose of erecting a lighthouse on Cape Henlopen." The estimated cost of the original lighthouse was £7,674/3/2.  It was the sixth lighthouse built in the colonies.  In 1777 the lighthouse was practically completely burned down by the British. On the return of peace in 1783, the wardens proceeded to repair the damage and it was relighted in 1784.

On September 28, 1789, the lighthouse together with all beacons, buoys, and public piers, lands, tenements and jurisdiction was ceded to the Federal Government by the State of Delaware in accordance with the act of Congress of August 7, 1789.  As early as 1788 evidence of wind erosion in the sandy area in which the tower was constructed, had been noted and steps taken, by planting "underwood and weeds of every kind," to prevent the sand from blowing away. There seemed to be no encroachment from the sea at that time.

Abraham Hargis was the keeper from 1797 to 1813 and his successor John Ware served until 1827. Following him Kendall Baston served until 1838, with a Mr. McCracken serving for a short period, until December 1839, when Asa Clifton, of Lewes, Del., took charge. William Elligood took over as keeper in 1849.  In 1851 sand was reported advancing toward the tower and the keeper’s house. A first-order lens was installed in 1856 due to the "numerous accidents that have occurred in consequence of the inferiority of the lighting apparatus from confounding a light which, from position, should be one of the principal seacoast lights, for the lightship off Five Fathom bank.

In 1863 a new keeper’s dwelling was built, "the old one being threatened with destruction by the speedy progress in that direction of a remarkable sand hill, which has been moving inflexibly in a certain course at a constant rate of speed for many years, presenting in its existence and movement a most singular natural phenomenon."  In 1868 "the big sand hill" situated at the north of the tower, formed of drifting sand, was found to have moved southward at the rate of 11 feet a year. The application of brushwood to exposed places was thought to have stopped the movement by 1872.

In 1883, the sea, in a storm, encroached upon the ocean side of the station, until the high water line came under the lighthouse and the question of the protection of the structure was taken under consideration. In that year the bark Minnie Hunter came ashore 550 feet north of the lighthouse and acted as a jetty so that the level of the sand under the lighthouse structure was raised some 20 inches. Erosion continued, however, and by 1885 the beacon, which had become unsafe from undermining, had to be removed to Delaware Breakwater.

In 1897 the sand dune surrounding the tower was reported to be steadily blowing away and by 1905 ‘several tons of brush were placed about the tower and oil house to prevent the foundations and brick walls from being undermined by the drifting away of the sand."  All measures to protect the tower failed, however, and on April 13, 1926, a northeast storm undermined the tower and caused it to fall seaward. Its value to shipping, however, had already been superseded by the light and fog signal station on the Delaware Breakwater and by the lightships and lighted buoys marking the entrance to Delaware Bay.