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Delaware Seashore State Park Turns 50

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On Nov. 1, 1785, the Faithful Steward was on the final leg of its journey from Londonderry, Ireland, to Philadelphia. On board were 249 passengers and 400 barrels of British pennies and halfpennies. (At that time, the United States lacked a mint.) 

To celebrate, Capt. Connolly McCausland hosted a party. He and the first mate drank too much and passed out. That night, during a storm, the ship struck ground in 24 feet of water less than 150 feet from shore. Pinned in one place and buffeted by the water and the wind, the ship broke apart. Only 68 people survived. 

Even today, coins occasionally pop up on the beach north of the Indian River Inlet, now known as Coin Beach. It’s not far from the Indian River Life-Saving Station, built in 1876 to save shipwreck survivors. Both are important parts of the legacy of Delaware Seashore State Park, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer.

This area holds a mystique for many. “It has always been this nexus between history and geography,” says Jim Hall, chief of cultural resources for the Delaware Division of Parks and Recreation. 

The 2,825-acre park occupies a six-mile strip that in some spots is less than a half mile wide. The Atlantic Ocean, the Rehoboth Bay and the Indian River Bay lap hungrily at the land. There is animal wildlife on the park’s Burton Island Nature Preserve and Thompson Island Preserve, and a host of aquatic life in surrounding waterways. When people want to get back to nature, he says, this is the place to do it.

“I’ve talked to people who’ve been coming here for generations,” Hall says. “They are really hung up on the inlet. It’s a much bigger deal than just a vacation destination.”

A shifting past

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the shifting shoreline made the land between Dewey Beach and the inlet a challenge to traverse. The first bridge was not built until 1934. In 1939, two jetties were built to stabilize the inlet, which had narrowed to the point that it affected commerce. 

Seaman feared this desolate section for the treacherous shoals, the pirates and the “moon cussers,” thieves who enticed ships to wreck by masquerading as a lighthouse or another ship. (A full moon would thwart their plans.)

The Indian River Life-Saving Station and the Cape Henlopen Life-Saving Station opened in 1876. There were stations in Lewes, Rehoboth Beach, Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island. Surfmen slept in a dormitory and shared cooking duties. At four-hour intervals, two men walked in opposite directions toward the nearest station to patrol for wrecks. 

In 1915, the service merged with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard. The Indian River Life-Saving Station, restored to its 1905 appearance and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is now a museum and the park visitors’ center.

The surrounding land became part of the Army’s defense system during World War II when Fort Miles occupied the present day Cape Henlopen State Park. Both parks still have the concrete fire control towers.

In 1961, Fort Miles was deemed surplus, and the land was given to the state. On Oct. 17, 1964, Gov. Elbert Carvel led the dedication ceremony for a state park. As the 1960s progressed, many sought to separate the area south of Dewey from Cape Henlopen. On May 10, 1967, the Delaware State Park Commission created the Delaware Seashore State Park. 

“Delaware Seashore State Park would instantly identify the area as comparable in natural features to Cape Cod National Seashore, Assateague National Seashore or Island Beach State Park in New Jersey,” Charles E. Mohr, executive director of the Delaware Nature Education Center, told The News Journal the day the park was created.

People had been camping on the land for years, says Laura Scharle, the park’s interpretive program manager. After the Ash Wednesday storm flattened the dunes in 1962, the state forbade camping. Beginning in 1967, guests could spend $2 to camp overnight.

Celebrating in style

Despite the separation, some people don’t know they’re driving through a park when they zip down Del. 1. But this hidden gem is a haven for swimmers, campers, boaters, birdwatchers, fishermen and sailors. There is a 310-slip marina with a boat ramp, dry-stack storage, fuel and sewage pumps, bait, 24-hour security, fish-cleaning services and a fish market.

Camping options include spaces for tents and recreational vehicles, which have access to electricity, water and showers. The cottages are fully furnished accommodations with two bedrooms, a loft, a kitchen, a gas fireplace, satellite TV, heat and air conditioning and a washer and dryer.

Special anniversary festivities will highlight these offerings. The park will hold a Celebrate the Beach event, for instance, with the annual sandcastle contest on July 8. The bay gets its tribute on Aug. 26, when park interpreters will be stationed along a kayak trail. On Sept. 23, the inlet and camping are the stars, with live music, night hikes and a beach bonfire. “It’s the only opportunity to legally camp right on the beach,” Scharle says.

This summer, diners will discover Delaware Seashore State Park. Big Chill Beach Club, operated by La Vida Hospitality, plans to open on the south of the inlet. “It’s a partnership with the state park to bring in an additional amenity and revenue,” says Josh Grapski, a partner in La Vida, which owns Fork + Flask at Nage, Big Chill Surf Cantina and Crooked Hammock Brewery.

The restaurant boasts a 40-foot-wide “umbrella” bar that opens and closes for shade. There are additional dining areas under pergolas, as well as a tented banquet area.

Park staffers are also assembling a scrapbook with people’s vintage family photos. “So many of our photos were taken by the state,” Scharle explains. They’re aerial shots or photos of officials. At year’s end, the scrapbook will have a place in the park office.

Hall, who once worked at the Indian River Life-Saving Station, will be on hand for the shipwreck rescue reenactments, an event that he started. “It’s near and dear to me,” he says. “It needs no embellishment. It is a compelling story.”

For more information, visit www.destateparks.com/DSSP50th.

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