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Lighthouses: Once trash. Now treasures.

fenwick island postcard from Univ of Delaware collection

The Fenwick Island Lighthouse, once a beacon for mariners, now stands as a proud testament to community, preservation, and Delaware’s maritime history. Symbolizing heritage and resilience, its light continues to shine brightly, embodying the spirit of the Fenwick Island community.

The structure is the last remaining lighthouse on the Delaware-Maryland ocean coast. Named after Thomas Fenwick, an English farmer who received the land from Lord Baltimore in 1682, the lighthouse is the only brick, conical-type light ever built in the state.

“A light-house in the vicinity of Fenwick’s Island will serve to guide vessels from the southern ports, bound into the Delaware, and also the great coasting trade with the same or a more northern destination,” reported the recently-created U.S. Lighthouse Board to Congress in 1855.

Lighting the Way: The Lighthouse’s Early Years

In 1858, the Lighthouse Establishment of the Department of Commerce and Labor erected the white-washed brick tower. Standing about 82 feet high, it warned ships of the sandy shoal about five miles off Fenwick Island. On August 1, 1859, the lighthouse first shone its light, fueled by whale oil lamps. The imported Parisian prism that amplified the light required a keeper to manually turn it every two minutes. The beam, visible 15 miles at sea, was later produced by burning mineral oil, and converted to electric lamps in 1899.

3rd order Fresnel lens (l) and cutaway of lighthouse showing interior
3rd order Fresnel lens (l) and cutaway of lighthouse showing the interior. National Archives collection

Transition and Deactivation: The Mid 20th Century

On July 1, 1939, the United States Coast Guard assumed responsibility for operating the country’s lighthouses. Deeming the Fenwick Island Lighthouse no longer necessary to Delaware Bay’s safe navigation, the Guard promptly sold the beacon that same year to Charles L. Gray, a recently retired lighthouse keeper. The authorities sold the second dwelling and most of the remaining property the following year. The sale included three-quarters of the station’s land and the old dwelling. Gray automated the light in short order.

In 1978, in a move that left locals blindsided, the Coast Guard deactivated the lighthouse and removed its Fresnel lens. This action sparked an outcry from the community, who had long associated the comforting beacon with their home.

The Fight for Preservation: Community Efforts and Triumph

Among the most vocal in the fight for preservation was local resident and advocate, Paul Pepper, whose lineage was intertwined with the lighthouse’s history. His great-grandfather, David M. Warrington, was the third keeper of the light, and his grandfather, Edward G. Pepper, served as an assistant keeper. Paul and his wife Dorothy became torchbearers for the cause, rallying the community to preserve their beloved lighthouse.

Key moments in the preservation effort included:

  • Launch of a letter-writing campaign
  • Enlisting the support of Delaware’s congressional delegation and the governor’s office
  • A request by Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. for the prism’s return to the lighthouse from the Coast Guard
  • Preservationist Richard B. Carter preparing a nomination for the lighthouse to the National Historic Register
1950s aerial of Fenwick Island lighthouse by Bill Swartout
1950s aerial of Fenwick Island lighthouse by Bill Swartout

Finally, under the leadership of Paul and Dorothy Pepper, the Friends of Fenwick Lighthouse assumed responsibility for maintaining the lighthouse. They successfully restored the electric light and the original lens, and turned the lighthouse into a summer tourist attraction.

After the passing of both Paul and Dorothy Pepper, a new Friends of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse was formed to continue the work of preserving and maintaining the lighthouse. Today, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and remains a unique spot, just a few feet from the Trans-peninsular Marker, which defines Delaware’s southern border with Maryland.

As Paul Pepper reminded future generations, ‘The state turned it over to us. It’s still owned by Delaware, but the upkeep is in our hands.’ This shining symbol of maritime history is not only a beacon of the past, but also a guiding light for community-led preservation, illuminating the spirit of the Fenwick Island community.

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