Description: In 1831, three lighthouses were built in Delaware, each one of them at the mouth of a small river that flowed into Delaware Bay. The Bombay Hook Lighthouse was constructed at the entrance to the Smyrna River, and the rivers marked by the other two are readily apparent from the names of their lighthouses: the Mahon River Lighthouse and the Mispillion River Lighthouse.
Congress authorized funds for the construction of the Mispillion River Lighthouse on March 3, 1831, to help guide vessels to the inland port of Milford, where over the years more than 400 ships were built and christened. Prolific lighthouse builder Winslow Lewis signed a contract on August 26th of that year to build the lighthouse on land purchased from Governor Charles Polk and his wife Mary Elizabeth for the token sum of $5. Completed by October 19, 1831, the lighthouse consisted of a lantern, with six lamps set in spherical reflectors, which was shown from the top of the keeper’s dwelling.
During an inspection of the station in 1838, William D. Porter reported that the lighthouse, like so many of those constructed by Lewis, was “badly built and nearly in ruins.” Porter suggested that the “miserable building at this place may be pulled down, and one erected in its place that will answer the purpose, and at the same time be a good and substantial building.” As entering the Mispillion River at low tide could be problematic, Porter also proposed that “the tower be so constructed as to show at low tides two lights, and that at high tides the lower light may be extinguished or shut in; but this means vessels will know exactly at what time they may venture over the bar at night. I also recommend a day tide mark, that vessels may know the height of the tides at all hours of the day.”
Apparently the navigability of the Mispillion River changed over time, for the Lighthouse Board in its Annual Report for 1872 requested an appropriation of “$5,000 for re-establishing a small light-house” near the river entrance. By the following summer, the lighthouse was completed, and the light from the tower’s sixth-order Fresnel lens was exhibited for the first time on June 15, 1873. Just a year later, an additional $5,000 was allocated for the construction of a brick cistern and the addition of four rooms to the dwelling. In its final form, the lighthouse now consisted of a two-story, L-shaped dwelling with a square tower positioned in the intersection of the wings. The tower contained the structure’s staircase and rose an additional story to display the light from a height of forty-eight feet above the bay.
Even though the lighthouse was located on a bay, the beachfront property was subject to erosion during high tides and winter storms. The first record of the station needing a seawall or dike was noted in the 1877 Annual Report of the Light-house Board, but as the following annual report excerpts show, erosion was to be a recurring problem.
On December 29, 1929 the Mispillion River Lighthouse was deactivated, having been replaced by a 60-foot steel skeleton tower that was relocated from Cape Henlopen, where it had been in service since 1924. Alexander Still served as caretaker for the Mispillion Lighthouse until 1932, when the lighthouse and all but 0.1866 acres around the steel tower were sold to private parties.
After passing through several hands and receiving little attention, the lighthouse, along with a restaurant and marina, was sold to Galen & Eileen Stauffer on January 28, 1991. During the first week of the following January, a severe storm inundated the area with eight feet of water and swept the restaurant and tackle shop a mile inland. Amazingly, the older lighthouse didn't budge an inch. Undaunted, the Stauffers repaired the marina and constructed a 60-seat restaurant atop elevated pilings. Turning a profit proved difficult, and the weary couple placed the site up for sale in 1998 for $549,000. By then, the lighthouse had been reduced to just a wooden shell.
In early 2001, it appeared there was hope for the dilapidated lighthouse, when a local lawyer, Merritt “Sam” Burke, III, announced he was planning to purchase the property and was willing to work with a non-profit organization to restore the historic structure. An enthusiastic group of supporters soon formed the Keepers of Mispillion Lighthouse, and in September of 2001, Burke announced he had purchased the lighthouse from the Stauffers.
But something positive for the lighthouse’s future occurred that same day, when John and Sally Freeman purchased a building lot in Lewes’ Shipcarpenter Square, a neighborhood reserved for residences consisting of relocated historic structures. A few days after the purchase, Sally saw a picture of the damaged lighthouse in a local newspaper, and the couple had soon contacted the Burke family and started negotiating a deal. Later in 2002, the remains of the lighthouse were removed to an undisclosed location. Lighthouse enthusiasts believed the beacon was lost forever, but in July of 2005 a modern lantern, costing over $53,000, was placed atop a reconstructed and expanded Mispillion River Lighthouse in Shipcarpenter Square.
Although the salvation of the Mispillion Lighthouse didn’t turn out quite as the Keepers of Mispillion Lighthouse would have foreseen in 2002, at least a portion of the historic lighthouse was incorporated in the modern replica, and the memory of Delaware’s last standing wooden-framed lighthouse will not be limited to old photographs.
Formerly located at the mouth of the Mispillion River, north of Slaughter Beach. The house that incorporated parts of the Mispillion Lighthouse is located in Shipcarpenter Square in Lewes.
The house that incorporated parts of the Mispillion Lighthouse is located in Shipcarpenter Square in Lewes.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
The old skeletal tower still remains near the mouth of the Mispillion River. The Burke family sold the site to the State of Delaware in 2004 for $1.2 million. The area is run by the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control and has been developed into a research center for the study of horseshoe crabs.
See our List of Lighthouses in Delaware
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.