Situation dire at Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse

Protective breakwater is falling apart around base of historic structure
August 25, 2020

Delaware River and Bay Lighthouse Foundation volunteers say major repairs are needed to the protective breakwater around the historic Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse.

“The situation is dire,” said Board President Rick Ziegler. “Soon, we will have to make a decision about possibly not coming out here anymore, because we are not sure how stable the lighthouse is.”

Board member William “Red” Moulinier said he's most concerned about the loss of roughly 70 percent of the rocks around the base of the 94-year-old lighthouse and the deterioration of its protective concrete base.

Although the breakwater around it is deteriorating, the lighthouse itself sits on a firm concrete foundation which has withstood the test of time for nearly a century.

However, Moulinier said there is still a sense of urgency. “We can't kick the can down the road anymore,” he said.

The far west end of the 7,950-foot-long breakwater is also breaking down.

Rebuilding sections of the nearly 120-year-old breakwater will carry a big price tag. It's money the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does not have budgeted.

The foundation owns the lighthouse and the Coast Guard maintains it; the Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for maintaining the breakwater.

The 76-foot iron lighthouse, a replacement of a temporary structure, went into operation Nov. 15, 1926, at the mouth of Delaware Bay. Keepers lived in the lighthouse for the next 47 years until it was automated Jan. 1, 1974.

A tour of the lighthouse

Foundation members took Army Corps of Engineers representatives and Lewes Mayor Ted Becker to see the damage firsthand Aug. 21 on a boat provided by Delaware Bay Launch Services.

Army Corps of Engineers Harbor of Refuge Project Manager Dan Kelly said they know the reason scouring and underwater erosion around the base are occurring, but finding a solution that doesn't cost tens of millions of dollars is another problem.

Repairs to the breakwater costing $3 million were done in 2010-11. Many of the 10- to 13-ton rocks used during that project near the lighthouse have broken away and fallen to the bay or ocean floor.

Kelly said the Cape Henlopen point is getting longer and wider, narrowing the channel from the point to the lighthouse, and increasing the speed of the current. The depth of the water has gone from 50 feet to 120 feet over the past 100 years, Kelly said.

“It's created a very steep, deep slope where the bay floor is eroding, creating holes, while rocks about it are tumbling into the water,” he said.

Standing at the base of the lighthouse, Kelly told board members that a project to repair the breakwater competes with other projects across the country. “Unfortunately, its ranking is not that high,” he said. “But we will work with you to show the value of this project and hope to get funding for at least the engineering phase.”

Kelly said the cost of replacing the huge rocks on the breakwater around the lighthouse has escalated because of the water depth. “We are looking for new solutions that don't cost tens of millions of dollars because it's hard to get that kind of funding,” he said. “At this point no idea is crazy.”

Kelly said the corps has surveyed the area three times over the past three years, including one survey that concluded last week, to gain a better view of the erosion taking place. He said very little erosion occurred from 2017 to 2019, but it appears just by the number of rocks fallen from the breakwater that the pace of erosion has picked up.

“A lot of rocks underwater are sitting precariously, and when we get a storm, they start shifting,” he said.

Foundation works to restore lighthouse

The Delaware River and Bay Lighthouse Foundation took over the lighthouse in 2004. Since then, volunteers have worked tirelessly to maintain the exterior of the lighthouse and restore the interior. This summer, volunteers have been painting inside and outside the lighthouse.

Tours conducted by the foundation have taken place annually, except for this year because of the COVID-19 health crisis. However, a Saturday, Sept. 12 sunset cruise is still on the foundation's schedule. Go to for more information.

Breakwater is on historic register

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.

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