Delaware by Day: Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse 

Recently, two friends and I had the coveted opportunity to visit and tour the Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse, the iconic white behemoth standing out amongst the boulders of the Delaware breakwater. 

Precariously situated on the “corner” of the Delaware Bay breakwater at the tip of Cape Henlopen, the lighthouse remains to this day a beacon to seafaring vessels and sportfishing craft. The breakwater itself is an enormous 1.5 mile-long structure built from a concrete foundation and covered with enormous slabs of rock.  

The Delaware Breakwater and Delaware Harbor were designed to protect seafaring vessels in a manmade harbor to wait out stormy weather. The breakwater took over 40 years for the Army Corps of Engineers  to complete (1821-1841) and has seen plenty of changes. The Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse was built much later, from 1897 – 1901 after it was apparent that the breakwater was not enough to warn ships of the many shoals dangerously located in the bay.   

During storms and unruly weather, it was not an unusual sight to see more than 100 ships anchored in the Lewes Harbor taking refuge on their way to the port of Philadelphia or other points north. 

The lighthouse and breakwater have a dramatic history, complete with devastating storms and several rebuilds and repairs. It is now owned by the state of Delaware, but is maintained lovingly by an all-volunteer organization, the Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation (DRBLF). It is on the prestigious  

Boarding a boat at the ferry terminal, we joined about 30 other curious passengers, took a “drive-by” by water around the other harbor lighthouse (the red one closer to shore), known as the East End Lighthouse. 

Greeting us at the enormous lighthouse were more volunteers, including one of the last lighthouse managers before the lighthouse was automated in 1973. He was full of adventurous tales and recounted many dangerous storms he lived through while isolated in the lighthouse. 

Ongoing maintenance has included repainting the rusting exterior (the structure’s cast iron plates and brick).  

The Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse is still a beacon for commercial and sportfishing craft alike. It is, along with the red East End lighthouse one of the most photographed scenes by residents and visitors alike, especially at sunrises and sets. It is a fan favorite of passengers of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry upon entering or exiting the harbor. 

The closest you can get to the lighthouse is by boat, so to get a real closeup and actual tour of the lighthouse is a rare opportunity. Tickets sell out immediately upon release in the spring, so pay attention to the DBRLF website and announcements. 

It truly is a unique adventure to learn up close more history of Lewes’s maritime legacy and the importance of the local breakwaters and lighthouses. 

While you are perched at the top landing of the lighthouse, take the opportunity to take photos of Cape Henlopen State Park’s “point.”  

Pics taken by Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse members and tour participants, featured on their website.

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