By the 1760s Philadelphia was the largest city in colonial America. To reach the bustling city, ships were forced to navigate around the dangerous shoals that surrounded nearby Delaware.
Merchants in Philly, looking to protect their business interests, organized a lighthouse to be constructed at Cape Henlopen. Lotteries in 1761 and 1762 (tickets were 40 shillings a piece) funded the project. The lighthouse, the sixth to be built in Colonial America, was constructed on a huge dune 40 feet (12 m) above the beach.
Made of granite cut from Brandywine quarries, it loomed impressively above the shallow and dangerous waters below. When the lighthouse was completed in 1765, it became the tallest structure outside of Philadelphia (at over 69 feet [21 m] tall).
In the early days of the Revolutionary War, a small force formed to defend the cape and the lighthouse, and the lighthouse served as a Patriot Watch Tower to monitor vessels entering the Bay. But before they could finish building gun emplacements many of the men were ordered to join the Continental Army.
Now without protection, a fire set by the British burned the entire wooden staircase leading up to the light and much of the inside of the building. The fire was an act of retaliation after locals refused to sell food to the British troops on the warship Roebuck. For the remainder of the war the light remained darkened. After the war, the lighthouse was repaired and put back to service.
The first recorded keeper of the lighthouse was Abraham Hargis (in it’s early days, records were not kept). A former lieutenant in the Continental Army, Hargis resigned his commission in 1778 upon receiving word that his property in Pennsylvania was destroyed and his cows murdered by the British. In 1802, he wrote to President Thomas Jefferson about the state of the lighthouse:
“I have kept the Light House ninteen [sic] years & it was never in such bad repair I am ashamed to see publick [sic] property in such condition.”
Within a few decades of its construction, the dune the lighthouse stood on was noticeably eroding away. In fact, it had begun eroding as early as 1788. No one ever made serious repairs to the stability of the building despite frequent warnings from the keepers.
In 1924, the light was decommissioned and the lens removed to be put on display. The land continued to erode at an alarming rate, 3 to 5 feet (about 1.5 m) a year, until the lighthouse was on the edge of the precipice. In 1920, a storm left the lighthouse swaying in the wind and worried residents about its future.
In April of 1926 a commission was sent to study ways to save the old lighthouse. Before viewing the lighthouse, an enormous storm rolled through the area and, in an instant, the lighthouse toppled in its entirety onto the beach. And that, was that. It was too late.
Residents rushed to collect souvenirs. Today you can still find many pieces of the lighthouse surrounding fireplaces in the area. Gone but not forgotten.
Photos of the lighthouse replicas and historical postcards were taken at the Rehoboth Beach Museum, a small but excellent museum. If you’re in the area, I recommend it.