Sea’s relentless power threatening Harbor of Refuge lighthouse

June 4, 2021

The sea is relentless, one of many planetary mega-forces constantly in play.

We don’t see gravity, but thank God it’s there, otherwise we would fly off this planet into space.

But we do feel winds, and see our beaches advancing and receding. They are, for us coastal dwellers, some of the most visible forces of nature at work.

Grains of sand move easily, swept by wind and waves. Huge, boulder-size blocks of granite take a little more doing. But don’t underestimate the power of water driven by those forces.

Many years ago, a small group of local journalists deployed to Rehoboth Beach in the darkness of a high tide during the height of a northeast storm. The north end of the Boardwalk is one of the most vulnerable sections of the resort in terms of storms interacting with human infrastructure. A good place to make dramatic photographs of storms and their impact.

Crashing waves, illuminated by swaying street lamps, rolled up lengths of dune fencing and threw them aside like young children sweeping aside piles of blocks. Then the rising surf busted up a few pieces of the Boardwalk near Stuart-Kingston.

Most impressive and frightening to me, though, was the raw demonstration of hydraulic power by leading edges of crashing waves lifting 4-by-4-foot sections of concrete sidewalk eight or 10 inches thick. Incoming waves lifted them; receding waves dropped them back to terra firma, though not necessarily in the same place.

The same thing is happening, although in different circumstances and with added dynamics, at the southeast end of the Harbor of Refuge breakwater. Wave action in that hostile coastal environment is moving huge stones far more dense and heavy than porous concrete. Men placed the stones there more than a century ago as the end point for the breakwater and foundation for the Harbor of Refuge lighthouse. The end of that mile-long stone wall is constantly battered by the northeast storms from which the breakwater was designed to provide shelter for anchored vessels. Now it’s giving way.

As the point of Cape Henlopen continues growing outward, it’s reported the gap between it and the end of the breakwater is closing. That narrowing intensifies the scouring action of tidal currents passing between the wall and the point. As the gap deepens, scouring also erodes the sea-bottom foundation on which the stones were placed so long ago. Between the erosion and the hydraulic power of the sea, stones are being displaced, jeopardizing the future of the lighthouse.

Red Moulinier, one of the leading forces in volunteer efforts rehabilitating the Harbor of Refuge lighthouse, is beginning to lose heart. “We have the lighthouse itself in the best condition it’s seen in many years – inside and out. But with the stones starting to shift and tumble out there, we could eventually lose it altogether.”

At a recent Maritime Hall of Fame induction in Lewes, Moulinier – an inductee from past years – said he had hoped efforts to gain federal funding to preserve the lighthouse would save the iconic structure. But he said he was notified by Sen. Tom Carper’s office that the necessary funding is now off the table. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

It’s one thing when scouring currents threaten a vital piece of public infrastructure, as was the case before the Indian River Inlet bridge was replaced several years ago. But it’s another case altogether when the threatened infrastructure is a lighthouse from a different era that no longer serves the critical navigational role it once did.

With so much federal money floating around, no doubt the lighthouse volunteers will continue to try to get a piece of the pie to help preserve an important element of Delaware’s maritime history and part of the draw for tourists.

Meanwhile, however, the relentless power of the sea and its persistent scouring currents continue to take seconds and minutes off the time left before the Harbor of Refuge lighthouse – without further assistance – follows the lead of the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse, which succumbed to similar forces and fell into the sea in 1926.      


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