Federal funds secured to study Harbor of Refuge, breakwater problems

Process could take nine to 24 months
January 28, 2022

The breakwater surrounding the Harbor of Refuge has been slowly disappearing since Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, leading to great concern about the future stability of the historic lighthouse.

“If anybody says we don’t need the Harbor of Refuge Light sitting on the end of that wall, they’re dead wrong,” said Red Moulinier, past president of the Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation, which owns and maintains the lighthouse. “The lighthouse serves a purpose for commercial shipping, and recreational boaters depend on it in a huge way.”

With the conditions worsening every year, the foundation got some good news recently when funding to study necessary repairs was announced as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. As part of $51.5 million heading to Delaware, $250,000 has been earmarked for the Harbor of Refuge.

“This is the starting point to get this project moving,” said John Kane, senior policy advisor for the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, of which Sen. Tom Carper is the chair. “There will be more [money] coming down the line, and we will continue to fight and advocate for that. This is critical infrastructure to the economy of Delaware, because we need to protect those commercial shippers and those recreational boaters. We also need to preserve our historic infrastructure throughout this country, and that includes these lighthouses.”

The study will include an engineering analysis of the breakwater and a look at the lighthouse’s foundation, which extends 15 feet into the breakwater. The goal of the study is to determine the needs and how a project should be designed to stabilize the structure.

Kane said the study could take anywhere from nine to 24 months, depending on the complexity of the situation.

“I would say this report is extremely important, because it will make the lighthouse and breakwater eligible for construction assistance in the future,” he said.

The breakwater wall was repaired in 2010-11, 110 years after its construction, Moulinier said, but Hurricane Sandy roared up the coast just a year later, setting in motion the current destruction. Rick Ziegler, president of the foundation, said scouring is a big problem near the lighthouse. The water depth was 50 feet when the breakwater was built in the early 20th century, but it has scoured to 120 feet in some areas, he said.

“Half the breakwater farthest from the light is gone; it’s just some jagged rocks coming up,” Ziegler said. “That’s how far it’s encroached over the last 10 years since Hurricane Sandy. If that erosion continues, the lighthouse will not be stable.”

Without a lighthouse, Carper says a vital part of Delaware’s nautical infrastructure is jeopardized. He said the $250,000 earmarked for the lighthouse is crucial in ensuring it stands for many years to come.

“It’s not the end-all, but it’s enough money to figure out what actually does need to be done to make sure that 100 years from now we’ll still have breakwaters; we’ll still have a safe refuge for shipping coming and going up into and out of the Delaware River and Delaware Bay,” he said. “And to make sure we have a lighthouse to keep ships and their crews safe.”

The breakwater was the second one constructed to create the Harbor of Refuge. Finished in 1901 at a cost of $2 million, the outer breakwater is 8,040 feet long and also includes a series of 10 icebreaking piers extending it another 1,250 feet.

The original breakwater, where the Delaware Breakwater East End Lighthouse sits, was the first of its kind ever built in the United States and the third in the world. It was completed in 1828. The “red” lighthouse was decommissioned in 1996.

The existing Harbor of Refuge lighthouse went into service in November 1926, just six months after the infamous collapse of the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse, which stood in current-day Cape Henlopen State Park. 

The Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse was manned until it was automated in 1973. At the time, all the windows were covered, and no one visited the lighthouse until the foundation entered into a 20-year lease with the U.S. Coast Guard in 2002. The foundation took ownership of the light in 2004 as a result of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.

Since purchasing the lighthouse, volunteers have worked tirelessly to maintain its exterior and restore the interior. Among their accomplishments was building a robust dock that’s designed to withstand the turbulent conditions at the mouth of the Delaware Bay.

The lighthouse was honored in 2021, when it was included in a Forever Stamp series featuring five Mid-Atlantic lighthouses.

The Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation regularly offers tours of the Harbor of Refuge. Information on future tours and events will be posted at


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