Inside the gates of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse, a small wheel that was once used to mechanically power the infamous light sits on display as a symbol of local history. Faded black-and-white photographs show keepers of the lighthouse dating back to the mid-19th century, when farmers tilled the adjacent land and salt flats. More than 100 obsolete metal stairs get smaller as they spiral upward 89 feet toward the top of the lighthouse. Even the bricks that encase the relic show its age.
Since the late 1850s, the Fenwick Island lighthouse has stood on the Maryland-Delaware line. Once an invaluable tool for seamen navigating past the dangerous Fenwick Shoals, the lighthouse now serves as a reminder of days and ancestors past, as well as the signature landmark of its namesake town.
For nearly 30 years, locals have worked tirelessly to retain the unique historical artifact, and once again — as has happened in ever era of its existence — another group has recently emerged to care for the renowned lighthouse. After Oliver Cropper, who has cared for the lighthouse for nearly three decades, stepped away from his duties late this spring, a group headed by Fenwick resident Winnie Lewis has taken over its caretaking.
“It’s just a part of our history,” Lewis explained of the devotion to the lighthouse.
Lewis and others recently reactivated the Friends of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse — the private non-profit that has taken care of the lighthouse since the early 1980s — under “The New Friends of the Lighthouse,” a name that suggests a new beginning.
In the late 1970’s, recognizing its growing insignificance as a navigational aid, the federal government deactivated and abandoned the lighthouse. In attempts to save it as a priceless piece of local history, the then-newly-formed Friends of the Lighthouse convinced the state to purchase the lighthouse and lease it to the local organization. Cropper, vice president of the Friends in the early 1980s and owner of the adjacent trailer park, had cared for the lighthouse until the end of May this year. Cropper took over full caretaker duties from Paul Pepper in 1993.
“We ran it, we paid the electric bill, cut the grass, opened it for tours all summer,” Cropper said recently. “It was very popular.”
Cropper estimated this week that 20,000 to 25,000 people visited the lighthouse each summer until this year, when the lighthouse has only been open sporadically and gone largely unlit, due to the unexpected change of hands.
Lewis said she has secured 10 volunteers and plans to announce new hours for the lighthouse soon. The New Friends also plan to hold a ribbon-cutting this fall to mark the full re-opening of the lighthouse.
Dee Granser, an Ocean City resident, visited the lighthouse on Tuesday. The self-professed lighthouse fanatic from Long Island, N.Y., said she will volunteer to help re-open the lighthouse because of its historical significance.
“I’ve tried to come in several times,” Granser said. “It hasn’t been open.”
Lewis said that problem should soon be solved with regular hours for visitors who wish to learn more about the significant relic and major landmark of the Delaware coast.
“There’s more to the beach than sand,” said Lewis, a Selbyville native. “That’s the first thing I can remember about seeing it, is the light shining in the lighthouse. That’s how everybody knew they were home. It’s something special.”
For more information about the New Friends of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse, or to volunteer, call (302) 436-8160.