Let There Be Lighthouses 

It’s a familiar sight to anyone who has been to Lewes. You can see it from Lewes Beach and Cape Henlopen State Park. It also greets ferry passengers traveling from Cape May to the Lewes terminal. 

The Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse, a grand structure nearly 100 years old has many stories to tell. Here to keep those stories alive is the Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation (DRBLHF), a dedicated volunteer-only organization that owns and maintains it. 

The Coast Guard, on the other hand operates the light and fog signal, both of which are battery operated and solar powered. 

To learn more about the history of the lighthouse and the role the foundation plays, I talked with Rick Ziegler, president of DRBLHF since 2019. 

The Harbor of Refuge lighthouse stands guard at the tip of the two-plus mile long breakwater, which is overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers. The breakwater’s construction began in 1828 and took several years to complete. It somehow survived, though was damaged considerably in a hurricane in 1877, and a blizzard in 1888 during which 70 sailors perished. 

It was an ambitious and dangerous build but was necessary in order to create a harbor where seafaring ships could take refuge from the Atlantic’s sometimes deadly storms.  

The current lighthouse was built in 1926 to replace the obsolete one that existed. As was common in the era, the lighthouse was lived in by staff from the US Coast Guard. This ceased in 1973 when the light became automated. In 2000, the US government passed the National Lighthouse Preservation Act, which encouraged nonprofit organizations such as DRBLHF to take on ownership. 

The Delaware River & Bay Light House Foundation assumed ownership in 2004 and the lighthouse has been undergoing meticulous restoration ever since. With a dedicated pool of about 30 people, the iconic white of the lighthouse exterior is repainted every year during the months of May through October. 

“Few people know that about us,” Rick explains. “We have about 15 people per excursion, which can be canceled on short notice due to inclement weather or harsh wave conditions even on the sunniest of days.” The work is done entirely by volunteers.  

“By far, our biggest expense is the boating,” Rick laments. DRBLHF does not own its own boat, and the charter they work with stays the entire time the volunteers are working, adding to the expense. 

Every year, the foundation has offered a boat tour that takes guests through the harbor first with a closeup look at the beloved red Delaware Breakwater East End Lighthouse (owned by the state of Delaware). Then the passengers head out to the Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse for a close look at it from all sides with narration from a foundation “docent.” 

In my case – I have been on the tour twice, it is a privilege to listen to “Red” Moulinier and his photographer wife Barbara tell stories about the lighthouse’s history and lure. Both are truly dedicated. 

During my first tour in 2022, we were able to disembark from the boat and climb the interior steps to various lookout locations. It happened to be a glorious September day, and dozens of surf fishing vehicles at The Point in the state park seemed close enough to swim to. 

Unfortunately, in 2023, guests were prohibited from leaving the boat. The Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for examining and maintaining the breakwater has detected a structural breach and deemed it unsafe for the public. Repairs are pending government appropriations and are expected to cost several million dollars. 

Rick and the DRBLHF board are hesitant to offer any tours at all this summer due to the unpredictable situation. That will come as a disappointment to many Lewes visitors. Tickets usually go on sale in April are always sold out early. 

Regardless of this disappointing news, the DRBLHF continues its mission to lovingly preserve the Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse. Plans for its future include “transforming the interior of the lighthouse back to its original look when it was occupied,” Rick says. 

DRBLHF always welcomes new volunteers and donors. Mostly, Rick jokes, is that they are in dire need of a new website. So if there are any site developers who could lend their talents as an in kind gift, the organization will be better equipped to educate and inform the public. 

The Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse has been the subject of countless photographs and paintings. It is adored so much, Rick says, that “the people of Lewes actually asked that the signal (foghorn) be on a perpetual timer of about every 15 to 20 minutes. That’s how much they love its sound.” 

For more information, to volunteer or to donate to DRBLHF, a message for Rick may be left at (302) 644-7046, or an email can be sent to DRBLHF.connect@gmail.com

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Bridget FitzPatrick 

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