90th Anniversary

Cape Henlopen Lighthouse still stands tall in Cape Region history

Iconic beacon fondly remembered 90 years after collapse
April 13, 2016

It's been 90 years since the historic Cape Henlopen Lighthouse fell from its home atop the Great Dune in what is now Cape Henlopen State Park, but the beacon remains a popular subject for artists, historians and longtime Lewes residents.

There was nothing extraordinary about the weather of April 13, 1926. It was reported to be in the 60s with strong northeast winds. After watching over the Atlantic for 161 years, it's time had come.

“It had really become a member of the family in many homes,” said Lewes historian Hazel Brittingham. “It seems strange to say that, but it was almost personified.”

The lighthouse was built in 1765 and remained in operation until 1924. According to John Beach's book “Cape Henlopen Lighthouse and Delaware Breakwater,” toward the end, the base of the seven-story lighthouse was overhanging the dune and it became popular for people to pose for photographs beneath it. It is believed the last bit of sand supporting the lighthouse gave way about 12:45 p.m. that day and the tower fell to the beach below.

On Easter Monday, just a week and a day before the collapse, Brittingham said, Lewes and Rehoboth residents made their annual trek to the Great Dune to partake in the tradition of rolling Easter eggs, and themselves, down the sand hill. Those hoping to visit the lighthouse that day were turned away, she said, as Coast Guardsmen had set up patrols to stop anyone from getting too close to the lighthouse.

Stories of its collapse have been passed on for generations, with many families still telling tales of the day the lighthouse disappeared from the eastern skyline.

“There was a man who was standing on the bridge looking toward what is today's state park, and he saw the lighthouse,” Brittingham said. “He blinked his eyes and when he opened them he couldn't believe it – she was gone.”

Longtime Lewes resident Joan Marshall Thompson said her family will always remember the day of the collapse as the day her father's sister died, when he was a boy.

“It's a sad story, but I was always fascinated by it,” she said, noting she's written poems about the lighthouse.

Thompson's childhood home is one of many in Lewes featuring a fireplace faced with stone from the lighthouse. After the lighthouse fell, people flocked to the site and collected remnants. The lighthouse's stone has been incorporated into many Lewes homes and buildings, including two stone fireplaces in Lewes City Hall.

The community has always embraced the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse, Brittingham said. The first Lewes High School yearbook in 1930 was named the Beacon in honor of the lighthouse, and a similar tribute can be found on Lewes High School class rings from 1931 through 1969, she said.

Tributes to the fallen lighthouse can still be found today, including the replica standing in the center of the circle as drivers enter Rehoboth Beach.

Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter