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Cape Henlopen Lighthouse


Lighthouse Data

Established: 1765
1910 Position: N 38° 46.7', W 75° 05.03'
Nautical Chart
Cape Henlopen, Delaware
Characteristic: FW [Fixed White]
Optics: First-Order Fresnel Lens - 1856
Elevation: 115-feet high Focal Plane
Range: 17 miles visible reach at sea
Structure: 69-feet high White-washed Octagonal
Pyramidal Granite Tower with Black
First Keeper: Abraham Hargis, 1797 to 1813 (3)
Fog signal: none
Deactivated: Sep 20, 1924
Current Use: Destroyed by a Northeast storm,
April 13, 1926 (6)

(1) The Sixth Lighthouse established in colonial America.  Cape Henlopen Light was built on the north side of Great Dune, located north of Rehobeth Beach and east of Lewes, Delaware, to mark the entrance to Delaware Bay and the hazardous Hen and Chickens Shoal.

      Due to shipwrecks and the loss of goods, Philadelphia merchants and leaders financed the construction of the Lighthouse by lotteries in 1761 and 1762 selling tickets for 40 shillings.  The Philadelphia provincial assembly issued a series of Lighthouse bonds at 6% interest to raise additional funds needed for the total construction cost of 7,674 pounds sterling.

      In 1763, 200 acres of land was purchased and a 69-foot high with 6-feet thick walls at the base, Granite Block Tower was completed in 1765. The Tower had 8 levels with a window on each level and a spiral wood stairway provided access to the Lantern Room on the eighth level.  The Lamps were illuminated by lard oil or whale oil when available and exhibited a light 115 feet above sea level visible for 17-miles according to the claims of some captains.

      The Lighthouse, operated by Pennsylvania, guided colonial and British ships to the prosperous port of Philadelphia.  During the Revolutionary War, the Lighthouse served as a Daymark and a Patriot Watch Tower for observing vessels entering the Delaware Bay.  Philadelphia was sent warnings when the British navy was sighted.  Notwithstanding, the British were successful in blockading American ships in the Delaware River.

      In 1777, the British gutted the woodwork of the Lighthouse by fire after Hedgecock refused sell his cows to a landing party from the British warship, Roebuck.  The Lighthouse was repaired after Peace Treaty of 1783 and relighted in 1784.

      The Light was ceded to the new Federal Government, on September 28, 1789 per the Act of Aug 7, 1789.

      By 1788, evidence of sand erosion by wind was noted and weeds and underwood were planted to control the Dune erosion.  The Lighthouse was built to last and withstand the powerful forces of ocean storms using 6-feet thick Granite stone at the base tapering to 3-feet thick at the top yet the builders had no knowledge that the sea was eroding the Great Dune at a rate of three to five-feet per year.

      During the War of 1812, the Lighthouse guided American naval ships and privateers returning with British bounty.  In 1813, the British again blockaded the Delaware River and Americans darkened Cape Henelopen Light causing British ships to run aground on the shoals surrounding the cape.

      Shifting sands and frequents storms continually threaten to undermine the Tower.  The powerful Atlantic Ocean constantly reshapes the cape by beach erosion causing the sandy cape to recede in a general northwesterly direction.  In 1883, a powerful storm surge forced water under the Lighthouse and the bark, Minnie Hunter was used as a jetty to protect the structure.  In 1897, the sand surrounding the Tower was continuously drifting away and tons of brush were used to protect the Lighthouse.

      After years of erosion control measures failed, the Lighthouse was decommissioned and abandoned on Sep 20, 1924.  Cape Henlopen Light was replaced by the Delaware Breakwater Light, the Harbor of Refuge (South) Breakwater Light and Lightships (see Note 5).  Additional Lighthouses and Lightships were built to aid navigation entering Delaware Bay due to shifting coastline of Cape Henlopen and shifting shoals surrounding the cape.

      Cape Henlopen Light was later condemned as unsafe.  A powerful northeast storm on April 13, 1926 undermined the Lighthouse causing the Tower to collapse seaward onto the beach below.

(2) In 1817, Winslow Lewis described the Lighthouse as situated at the entrance of the Delaware Bay.  The lantern is 100 feet above the sea, and contains a fixed light.  The Lighthouse Inspection Report of 1838 noted Cape Henlopen Light can be seen at the distance of 18 miles.  The Range of 17 miles as noted in the above Light List was specified on a 1913 Nautical chart.

(3) The records of earlier Keepers is unknown.

(4) From 1824 to 1885, Cape Henlopen Beacon marked the tip of Cape Henlopen.  The 45-foot high stone Lighthouse was built three quarters of a mile north of the original Cape Henlopen Lighthouse.

      In 1884, the Beacon was surrounded by water at high tide due to sand erosion caused by the sea.  In 1885, the Beacon was replaced by the Delaware Breakwater Light.

(5) Lightships on Station marking the Overfalls Shoal located at the entrance to Delaware Bay, 5 miles offshore from Cape Henlopen:

LV 69 was assigned from 1901 to 1925.

LV 71 was assigned from Oct 14, 1903 to Nov 29, 1903 for temporary duty on Overfalls Shoal.

LV 101 (WAL 524) was assigned from 1926 to 1951.
Lightship is marked with the name PORTSMOUTH, dry berthed and open to the public as Portsmouth Lightship Museum at Portsmouth, VA.

WLV 605 (WAL 605) was assigned from 1951 to 1960.
Lightship was acquired by US Lighthouse Society San Francisco, Dec 1988.

   The Lightship LV 118 (WAL 539) was donated to Lewes Historical Society (Lewes, Delaware) on August 9,1973 and ironically, the ship is marked OVERFALLS yet, the ship was never assigned to that station.

(6) Currently, Hen and Chickens Shoal is marked by a Green Lighted Gong Buoy exhibiting a Flashing Green Light every 2.5 seconds to a range of 4 Nautical miles.  Google Map 

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State Park Access

Yes, Herring Point for a
scenic view of the shifting
sand dunes that
undermined and
destroyed the Lighthouse.

Cape Henlopen

- Google Map 

Directions From DE-1 S
(Coastal HWY South):
Turn Left onto US-9 East
Turn Right onto Cape
Henlopen Drive and Park at
Herring Point.

Duck Stamp

Water-color Painting of the
American Scoter and Cape
Henlopen Lighthouse by
Bonnie Field of Newark, DE

Travel Links

Lost Lights

Cape Henlopen Beacon

Cape Henlopen Light
was similar to

Sandy Hook


Document Updated: Fri 22 Oct 2010, 7:00:00pm EDT (GMT-4)

Copyright © 2000 to 2010 by Debbie Dolphin. All Rights Reserved.

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