Fenwick Island is a barrier island at the very southern border of Delaware. When I say “very,” I mean it sits exactly on the origin of the Mason-Dixon line, the border between Delaware and Maryland. The Island itself was granted to Thomas Fenwick, a wealthy planter, who lived nearby but never bothered to visit the land even once.
Fenwick Island Lighthouse was built in 1859 to protect ships from the treacherous shoals around Delaware’s coast. Congress approved the $25,000 lighthouse as the number of shipwrecks continually increased and hurt trade headed for Philadelphia.
To build the light, the U.S. government paid Mary Hall $50 for the land which was the highest point of the island and promptly built their 87-foot beacon. The original light burned on whale oil and could be seen 15-miles out in the ocean.
The keeper’s residence was built next to the tower and in the beginning, two families were moved into the one-family home to operate the light. Things quickly became too crowded and the house was divided so that the keeper and his family lived on the first floor and the assistant keeper and his family lived on the second. In 1881 a new residence was built to house the head keeper and the assistant keeper remained in the original house.
The light greatly improved the safety of the area but it, of course, did not stop all disaster such as in February of 1899 when a heavy snowstorm prevented a Liverpool steamer’s captain from seeing the Fenwick lighthouse. After the propeller and rudder were carried away the ship and 121 people on board were stuck until a tugboat came to their assistance.
Sometimes the storms were just too heavy for the light to be of much help. In 1904 Clarence Raynor from Long Island drowned near the lighthouse in a gale that lasted six hours. The small sloop was stuck in a storm and though they neared the light, seeing the light alone could not save them. Clarence was washed overboard and drowned as his brother Harry, only a few yards away, looked on helplessly.
In 1918 the U.S. Cherokee went down in a gale near the light after sending out a distress signal. Twenty nine sailors were lost and 10 saved. When the patrol tug sent to assist the men floundered in the wind, it supplied rafts to the stranded sailors instead. One raft was so weathered by the heavy seas that the men were all battered into unconsciousness. The men on the second raft were not so lucky, they were all killed.
Still the light made the shore safer for many and it remained in operation for nearly 120 years. For the keepers that lived there it was a lonely existence. Accessing the mainland was extremely difficult and the light station remained incredibly isolated. Grand plans for a boardwalk, oceanfront properties and other attractions never materialized. The roads were too rough, there was no railroad to connect Fenwick to any other city and even getting there by boat could prove treacherous.
In the 1940’s the U.S. government automated the lighthouse and sold off most of the original surrounding property. Much of that property became small trailer parks for summer tourists. The two keepers houses were sold, and remain, as private residences.
In 1978 the lighthouse was decommissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard and the light was turned off. Heavy pressure from state government to turn the light back on eventually led the Coast Guard to pass ownership of the lighthouse to the state. In 1982 the lighthouse was relit, this time with electricity, mainly as a symbol and not for actual ship safety. And that is how a lighthouse ended up in a trailer park.