Rehoboth Beach History - Riding an "Iron Horse" to the Nation's Summer Capital

December 14, 2016

Have you ever wondered why the northern beach communities of Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach and Lewes are more built up than the southern “quiet resort” towns of Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island?

I mean Fenwick does border Ocean City, right? The state of Maryland’s second largest city from June through August, with its large condominium buildings and reputation as one of the busiest summertime beach resorts on the eastern seaboard, is just a stone’s throw away.

Well, the historical answer may surprise you, unless you’ve lived in this area a long time and are well versed on days gone by.

But the reason is actually quite simple – in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the railroad made its way to the beach communities in and around Rehoboth, while the elusive Indian River Inlet kept the southern communities essentially isolated from its northern neighbors.

That very same inlet is also what furthered the demise of the area’s passenger railroad service, but for decades, the train is what fueled the growth of southern Delaware’s coastal communities.

Let’s take a closer look at a little bit of our local railroad history…

It was 1869 when railroad service began in Lewes, which was a huge boon to the area, allowing it to compete with communities in the western part of Sussex County, which had enjoyed rail service since the 1850s.

Essentially, Gov. William Henry Harrison Ross (a Seaford native) had given the towns in his neck of the woods a competitive advantage when it came to transporting crops to the metropolitan centers of Wilmington and Philadelphia.

And that advantage continued for more than a decade, until the Junction and Breakwater Railroad finally laid the tracks and extended service over to the “First Town in the First State.”

Nine years later, in 1878, service was extended from Lewes to Rehoboth Beach, allowing easier access to the resort town for visitors from upstate Delaware and neighboring Pennsylvania. In essence, this move forever changed the town from a Methodist campground to the tourism mecca that it remains today.

The train tracks in Rehoboth Beach used to run directly down the center of Rehoboth Avenue, which today serves as the divider between the eastbound and westbound lanes of traffic. The train station still remains on “The Avenue,” serving as the visitors center run by the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce.

The adjacent icehouse, which now houses the Rehoboth Beach Museum, was a daily stop on the train route, where huge blocks of ice would be picked up and transported to other markets.

But while trains definitely served the purpose of transporting goods to northern markets, the early days of the railroads in Rehoboth centered more on transporting beachgoers to the summertime resort.

Later, it was the completion of the rail line from Georgetown through Selbyville in 1872 that gave the coastal areas what Seaford and western Sussex County already had — a way to ship crops to the large metropolitan areas of the north.

Read the rest of this story HERE.

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