Fenwick Island is a barrier island that lies at the south of Delaware and into Maryland. In the mid Nineteenth Century, an increasing number of shipwrecks near the Fenwick Shoals, about 6 miles off-shore of Fenwick Island, prompted the United States Lighthouse Board to recommend the construction of a lighthouse to help mariners avoid the shoals. Congress agreed with the Lighthouse Board and authorized $25,000 in 1856 for establishment of a lighthouse on Fenwick Island.
The United States Government paid Mary Hall $50 for 10 acres of land. Considered the highest point on the island, the site was just feet from the Transpeninsular Marker that defines the Delaware and Maryland State lines. The station was completed and the lamp was lit for the first time August 1,1859.
The 87-foot tower has an unusual design in that the outer brick tower is conical, while a second inner brick tower is an 8-foot diameter cylinder. The lighthouse housed a third-order Fresnel lens. The lens named for its inventor, physicist Augustin Fresnel, who designed lenses that collected and focused the light rays into a horizontal beam far more efficiently than a reflector system. Fresnel's optic array increased light output dramatically from the old reflector systems, with as much as eighty percent of the light being transmitted over twenty miles out to sea. The Fenwick Island Light beam could be seen fifteen miles in the ocean. The original lamp burned whale oil.
Built just east of the tower, the keeper's residence included cisterns in the basement for collecting rain water. The entire cost of the project came to $23,748.96.
Two families were housed in a space large enough for only one family, and the dwelling became crowded quickly. The keeper and his family lived on the first floor while the assistant keeper and his family lived on the second floor. In 1878, the Lighthouse Board recommended an addition to the existing residence. In 1881, an entirely new residence was built just to the west of the tower. The head keeper moved into the new residence, and the assistant keeper remained in the original.
The Fenwick Island Light Station was extremely isolated and access to the mainland was limited to crossing "the Ditch" by boat. "The Ditch" was a large canal of the Assawoman Bay that flowed to the Atlantic Ocean. The first bridge across "the Ditch" to the mainland was built in 1880 and was made of wood. Several different versions have replaced that first bridge through the years. The current bridge is concrete and was originally built by the State of Delaware in 1958.
The lighthouse was automated in the early 1950's and the government sold off most of the original property. The last keeper, Charles L. Gray, purchased several acres of land whose family still resides on the original property. The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1978. The two keepers houses are now private residences.
The citizens of Delaware, Maryland, and visitors from all over the world, protested the "turning-off" of the lighthouse and petitioned the U.S. Coast Guard to turn the light back on. In 1981, after three years of being dark, the Coast Guard passed ownership of the lighthouse to the State of Delaware, who in turn leased the lighthouse to Paul Pepper and "The Friends of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse," the new "guardian" citizens group formed to care for and protect the light. In 1982, a symbolic light was placed in the tower, and the lighthouse was relit. Eventually, the "Friends," with the help of many elected officials and thousands of concerned citizens, convinced the Coast Guard to return the lighthouse to its original grandness and return the Third Order Fresnel lens.
The "New" Friends of Fenwick Island Lighthouse, formed in 2007, continues the preservation duty of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse begun by Paul Pepper in 1981.
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