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A Walk Through History


Learn how the U.S. Life Saving Service in Lewes helped in a freak blizzard in 1888. Photograph by Drew OstroskiHikers and beachcombers probably had no idea the fishing pier they passed at Cape Henlopen State Park was once a quarantine station for immigrants. Nor did strollers looking out at breakwaters in Delaware Bay have a clue the structures once provided a safe harbor for commercial ships in treacherous waters. Most people in Lewes’ Canalfront Park didn’t know fisheries—and all their glorious aromas—once dominated the town.

Now they do.

Visitors and locals alike can learn about Lewes’ past on the new Lewes Maritime History Trail, a 4.3-mile, self-guided route that encompasses 10 sites, each with signs that detail information about the people, industries or events that shaped the town. Some markers, like those at the lifesaving station and the lightship Overfalls, explore historical movements and trends, not just the attraction itself. 

“It’s a very nice addition to Lewes,” says Ted Becker, managing partner for Stewart-Becker Properties in Lewes. “It’s self-directed. You’re not dependent upon a museum being open. You can visit all 10 sites or do two at a time. It’s a real good fit, especially for the population in this community, which is interested in history.”

The project was funded in part by a grant from Preserve America, a federal initiative that supports cultural and natural heritage. To receive the grant, Lewes had to become a designated Preserve America Community, which it did in 2006. It then received $35,000 from the federal organization, which it had to match.

“We were able to cobble together other grants and include volunteer time as a match,” says Mike DiPaolo, executive director of the Lewes Historical Society. The narrator on an accompanying audio tour, for instance, did the project pro bono.

Costs add up quickly, DiPaolo says. The Lewes Maritime History Trail includes heavy-duty, full-color signs complete with photographs or illustrations, a brochure and the audio tour, which is played on the kind of handheld devices typically seen in museums.

The project started with only eight locations but, before anyone knew it, the number jumped to 10. “We realized there was so much to talk about—and still there was so much we didn’t talk about,” DiPaolo says.

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The audio tour will eventually encompass even more sites, with sections on cemeteries and churches, architecture, colonial history and natural history still to come. The latter portion is being developed by the University of Delaware

“If you’re really interested, you could spend all day doing it,” DiPaolo says. “It’s the chance to delve in as deep or shallow as you want.”

You can walk the route, but you might want to bike or drive portions. Three sites are near the Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal. The rest are closer to town, except for the University of Delaware site, which is just west.

West to east, here are the 10 locations:

For almost 60 years, the University of Delaware has conducted important marine research. College of Marine and Earth Studies
700 Pilottown Road

Since 1950, the University of Delaware has been involved in cutting-edge marine research. “It’s a very important part of the community,” DiPaolo says. The sign here notes the university’s contribution to studies on marine science, oceans, the atmosphere and the environment.

The Life-Saving Station Boathouse
110 Shipcarpenter St. 

Before there was the U.S. Coast Guard, there was the Life-Saving Service, which was organized to rescue shipwrecked mariners, ships and cargo. The Cape Henlopen station was founded in 1876. The white, peak-roofed Lewes station—which is spotlighted—opened in 1884. The marker makes note of the stations’ heroics during the Blizzard of 1888, a freak “white hurricane” that drove dozens of ships onto the breakwater. In 1914 the service merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the venerable United States Coast Guard.

The Lightship Overfalls guided mariners for half a century. Photograph by Drew OstroskiLightship Overfalls
on the canal, next to the life-saving station

The U.S. Overfalls, a local celebrity, is one of 179 floating lighthouses—complete with foghorns and beacons—that served on America’s three coasts and on the Great Lakes between 1820 and 1895. The ship, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1938. It’s been restored thanks to the efforts of volunteers. The Overfalls returned in June after having its hull restored in Norfolk, Virginia.

Canalfront Park on Front Street 

DiPaolo has traced Lewes’ once-thriving shipbuilding industry back to at least 1683. Among the most interesting shipbuilding tales is the story of the Lewis family. Cato Lewis, who learned the trade as a slave, founded one of the earliest African American-owned shipyards. Documents from the early 1800s mention his family’s boatyard. The industry in Lewes produced mostly sloops and barques that could navigate the shallower water they were launched in. By the mid-19th century, shipbuilding had moved up to Milton, perhaps because lumber was more plentiful there.

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The War of 1812
1812 Park on Front Street

During the war, the British blockaded the mouth of the Delaware Bay, pelting Lewes with heavy cannon fire in retaliation for being denied supplies. Across from the park, which was the site of a fort, stands the Cannonball House, which still has a cannonball from the fight embedded in its foundation.

The 83-year-old Harbor of Refuge lighthouse is among the most exposed on the Atlantic Coast. Photograph by Judith RoalesLighthouses
Lewes Beach parking lot at the end of Savannah Road

Lighthouses, including the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse, which slid into the ocean almost a century ago, once stood on the shores in and around Lewes. The East End Lighthouse and the Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse still stand, and they are clearly viewable from this spot on the shore of the bay.

The 76-foot Harbor of Refuge, built in 1926, is among the most exposed lighthouses along the Atlantic coast, so it is routinely pounded by punishing waves. The lighthouse that previously occupied that spot was so damaged by storms it had to be dismantled. The Delaware Breakwater East End Lighthouse housed light keepers from 1885 to 1950.

Menhaden Fisheries
Lewes Beach parking lot at the end of Savannah Road

Menhaden fishing was once the backbone of the local economy. These fishermen haul nets aboard the East Hampton off Cape Henlopen in 1956. Photograph courtesy of the Col. Riley McGarraugh Collection, The Lewes Historical SocietyLewes for a time was the center of the menhaden fishing industry, which ran from Canada to South America. Menhaden once swam here in schools that numbered hundreds of thousands. The fish are prized for their oil, but they’re also used for fertilizer. “It was a big business,” DiPaolo says. “It was an important part of Lewes. On a basic level, it provided so many jobs.” Not only did the fish factories employ the locals, but so did the industries that served the factories.

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Delaware River pilots have steered vessels  up the hazardous waterway since 1896. This group is pictured on the third pilot boat, Philadelphia, in 1960. Photograph courtesy of the Collections of The Lewes Historical SocietyDelaware Pilots
Cape May-Lewes Ferry Terminal, 43 Cape Henlopen Drive

Customers waiting to ride the Cape May-Lewes Ferry may notice the boats that cruise from the neighboring pilot station to meet ships waiting at the mouth of the Delaware Bay. Members of the Pilots’ Association for the Bay & River Delaware, founded in 1896, guide ships up the river to Wilmington, Philadelphia and Trenton, dodging treacherous shoals, rocky ledges and other hazards. “It’s kind of neat that they’re still doing it,” DiPaolo says.

Breakwaters like the original Delaware Breakwater have shielded Lewes Harbor from turbulent seas since 1828. Photograph by Judith RoalesBreakwaters
Cape May-Lewes Ferry Terminal, 43 Cape Henlopen Drive 

You might wonder why the breakwaters weren’t included with the lighthouses that sit on them. That is because they deserve their own recognition, DiPaolo says. “Too many people see the lighthouses, but not the breakwaters.” The massive structures, made of rubble and stone blocks, shield Lewes Harbor from turbulent seas, which were especially dangerous during storms. In bad weather, ships going upriver could take refuge behind the breakwaters to wait out bad weather. Even ships going up the seaboard stopped there to find safe haven.

The “inner” breakwater, built in 1828, is the Delaware Breakwater, which was designed by architect and engineer William Strickland, who also designed the Second Bank of the United States and the Merchants’ Exchange in Philadelphia and the Sussex County Courthouse in Georgetown. His breakwater was deemed too small—especially when 200 ships took refuge there in one storm alone—and the gap between the icebreakers and breakwater encouraged dangerous currents. It was later closed. The outer breakwater is the Harbor of Refuge, authorized by Congress in 1896.

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Delaware Breakwater Quarantine Station housed diseased immigrants long before it became the fishing pier of Cape Henlopen State Park. Courtesy of Collections of The Lewes Historical SocietyQuarantine Station
Cape Henlopen State Park Fishing Pier

In the 19th century, millions of immigrants sailed for America. They also carried the threat of epidemic diseases, such as yellow fever, cholera, smallpox and typhus. Delaware Breakwater Quarantine Station, which processed more than 200,000 immigrants, opened in 1884 as part of the National Quarantine System. Located on what is now Cape Henlopen State Park, the facility was also known as the Delaware Breakwater Quarantine Hospital or the Marine Hospital.

Ships heading up the Delaware River stopped at the station, where a doctor would board and have a look. If there was no sign of disease, the ship proceeded to Philadelphia. Those suspected of disease were taken to the hospital. Later, officials also removed anyone who had come in contact with the patients. The remaining passengers stayed aboard the anchored ship for two to 12 weeks for monitoring. The station became a Navy base during World War I, then closed in 1926. By 1932 buildings were demolished, moved or incorporated into other buildings.

But thanks to the Lewes Maritime History Trail, its story lives on. For more information on the trail, call the Lewes Historic Society, 645-7670, or visit www.historiclewes.org. The brochure and audio tours can be picked up at the society, at 110 Shipcarpenter St.  

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