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Why Rehoboth Beach’s boardwalk is where it is

hand colored early rehoboth beach postcard

The Rehoboth Beach boardwalk shore vacationers today know and love was first built in 1884, and stretched for one and a quarter miles. How did the builders decide where to site its beginning and end?

The Delaware legislature early on understood the advantages of the site for a resort, and in 1855 incorporated the “Rehoboth Hotel Company” to set aside for commercial use five acres of state land to encourage development. Those five acres, though, weren’t specified till 1869. During the intervening 14 years the railroads hadn’t reached far enough south on the peninsula to shepherd tourists the entire distance to the beach. 

It was still a luxury trip by other conveyances, and a lengthy, bumpy, dusty one at that. But the owners of the Delaware Railroad, the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad, and the Junction & Breakwater Railroad all saw the site’s resort potential and were jockeying to reach the embryonic sea settlement. 

They were fully aware that the first one there could reap the tremendous rewards of owning the entryway to the newest competitor to Cape May or Atlantic City.

Late 1800s view of Baltimore Avenue, Rehoboth Beach. Courtesy Delaware Public Archives
Late 1800s view of Baltimore Avenue, Rehoboth Beach. Courtesy Delaware Public Archives

So. The railroads were watching the movement of the developers. The developers were watching the movement of the railroads.

Developer Louis Frederick jumped first, and requested a state permit in 1869 to build the Rehoboth City Hotel on a tract of land at the head of Rehoboth Bay. His quarters, built in 1870 and known locally as the Surf House, were basic barracks, pitching duck hunters, not sunbathers. 

By September that year the Delaware Railroad extended a spur from its Lewes station to service the destination.

The more resort focussed Douglass House opened in short order, with rooms for sixty guests, and was successful enough that by 1897 its owners added forty more rooms. The state supplied a post office to the burgeoning town in 1873, and by the middle of that decade Rehoboth City speculators had added the Bright House and Hotel Henlopen to the resort hotel roster.

This grouping of hotels and post office formed what in the early 1880s became the southern terminus of the boardwalk.

Meantime, a mile north, in what started as the original town of Rehoboth Beach, then was called Cape Henlopen City, and finally just Rehoboth (once its sprawl met up with Rehoboth City sprawl to the south), the Rehoboth Methodist Episcopal Church incorporated the Rehoboth Association. In 1871 it purchased several hundred acres with an eye towards setting up an annual camp-meeting space. The church plotted wide streets, parks and spacious lots not far from its intended camp meeting location, and sold off the lots at $50 apiece.

Early 20th century view of Surf Avenue, Rehoboth Beach, DE. Courtesy Delaware Public Archives
Early 20th century view of Surf Avenue, Rehoboth Beach, DE. Courtesy Delaware Public Archives

In early 1873 the Delaware legislature formally changed the association’s name to the “Rehoboth Beach Camp Meeting Association” (at the prompting of church officials, and in order to maintain a tax-free status). Later in the year the Methodists built their camp meeting grounds half a mile back from the beach in an oak grove. Their subsequent annual meetings drew thousands of attendees a year for the next several years.

This early and immediate success encouraged the association to improve their beach property, and that in turn motivated lot owners to build out their lots with cottages.

The Junction & Breakwater Railroad completed an extension of its line to the camp meeting grounds in July of 1878. 

The Methodist leaders in the area were both becoming disillusioned with the crowding around their camp meeting grounds, and at the same time wanted to cash in on the increased real estate value caused by same. And so in early 1879 the charter was changed yet again to “Rehoboth Beach Association,” removing any church connection.

“Rehoboth is now very lively and attractive,” said the 1880 annual report of the Rehoboth Beach Camp Meeting Association, the last one under that name. “Hops are to be held nightly at the Bright House, and worldly amusements will have full sway during the remainder of the season.”

The Methodist church discontinued its camp meetings in 1881. Three years later the Queen Anne’s Railroad extended its line, which began in Queenstown, MD, straight down the main avenue of the now single, unified town of Rehoboth. It built a depot right at the beach, and the boardwalk, only 8 feet wide at first, emerged nearby in short order. The boardwalk’s northern terminus was the middle of the Methodist church’s former beachfront property.

Cast iron toy locomotive from the Queen Anne's RR against a stock certificate background of same RR

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