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Lightship Overfalls: Lewes, Delaware History

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An interesting looking ship sits along the canal across from Irish Eyes restaurant in Lewes. It’s more than 110 feet long from stern to bow, and even the casual observer can tell it’s been refurbished. But despite the ship’s new veneer, a powerful sense of history and hardship emanates from the vessel. It’s not sleek or fast, but it’s strong and enduring. Painted on its side in large white letters is the word “Overfalls.” It’s a lightship, one of 179 ever built. And for 160 years its brethren have been an integral part of our nation’s maritime history.

Commissioned in 1820 by the U.S. government, lightships were essentially mobile lighthouses. According to retired seaman George Elliott of Lewes, these craft weighed more than 400 tons and could travel at roughly 11 miles per hour. Lightships were responsible for warning incoming vessels to stay away from hazardous areas where they might crash or flounder. To do this, the ships would transmit a powerful beam of light from a beacon atop a 30-foot mast. If the weather was poor, the crew would sound a foghorn that could be heard five miles away. 

The vessels were usually manned by 14 men who were sent several miles off the coast for two-week stints. Serving on a lightship was no easy task. Sailors lived in cramped quarters and were asked to brave the elements on a regular basis. Many of these men lost their lives. And of the 179 lightships ever built, more than 20 were lost at sea.

The Overfalls, as with all lightships, derives its name from the nearest lightship station. The Overfalls station, located between Cape Henlopen and Cape May, was the last active station in Delaware waters. It closed in 1961. Ironically, the ship itself never actually served at its namesake. 

The Overfalls, built in Maine in 1938, has seen its share of adversity. It served in Connecticut, New York and Boston before being retired in Baltimore in 1971. Its arduous journey had ended, or so many thought. The lightship that became a Delaware landmark actually brought the people of a coastal town together.

At the behest of the Lewes Historical Society, the United Stated Coast Guard donated Overfalls in 1973. Tracy Mulveny, the fifth president of the Overfalls Foundation, who has lived in Lewes for 50 years, remembers when the lightship first arrived. “It was a neat part of history that we all thought would be worth saving,” she says. 

Folks underestimated how much work was needed to restore the ship. “When they first brought the Overfalls in during the 1970s,” says Mulveny, “it just sat there and began to rust. After a few years, the Lewes Historical Society had to close the ship to the public. I thought it was so sad.”

The problem was one familiar to every nonprofit organization: too many projects and not enough revenue. So the Overfalls sat in disrepair for the better part of three decades. Then, in 1999, Lewes resident Merrill Kaegi placed a newspaper ad seeking anyone interested in saving the ship. He invited locals to a meeting, and 24 people showed up.

David Bernheisel, who became involved with the ship a year later, remembers Mrs. Kaegi’s enthusiasm. “She didn’t just give tours of that ship—you could tell that it was really a part of her. She saw the Overfalls falling apart so she called a meeting. That was really the beginning of our mission to save the ship.”

From that gathering came The Friends of the Lightship Overfalls. Under the umbrella of the Lewes Historical Society, the specialized group was dedicated to saving the lightship. Within two years, the group broke away from the society, forming a nonprofit organization called The Overfalls Foundation. There was still a long way to go. 

Bill Reader, who has been involved with the lightship since 1999, remembers the early struggles of resurrecting a piece of history. “The ship was basically a rust bucket that hadn’t been cleaned for 30 years,” he says. “We didn’t have a lot of volunteers at first, but by 2001 we had a large enough crew to get to work. Nobody working on the ship had technical expertise. We all had varied backgrounds.”

What they did have, however, was a strong work ethic. Despite the fact that the average age of the volunteers was 73, visible progress was made quickly. Grants and donations poured in.

Fast forward to 2012. The Overfalls sits quietly yet triumphantly long the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal. It is a testament to the men and women who dedicated countless hours restoring it.

The Overfalls Foundation hosts tours and social gatherings all summer. The ship was designated a National Historic Landmark and is now one of a group of 2,400 in the country.

“Needless to say, we’re pretty excited,” says Bernheisel. “It’s a big deal for us, and a big deal for Delaware.”

So why go through all the trouble?

“The Overfalls represents the hard work of the men and women who came before us,” Elliott says. “It gives us an idea of what life was like for many Americans. When you see how people with tough lives persevered, it makes you appreciative.”

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