Deepening seabed threatens Delaware’s Harbor of Refuge lighthouse

A lighthouse is pictured in 2021

Portions of the breakwater that hold up the Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse near Lewes have sunken into the Delaware Bay. (Rick Ziegler/Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation)

When Superstorm Sandy tore up the Delaware and New Jersey coast in 2012, it caused unseen damage to the sea floor at the mouth of Delaware Bay. That change has helped accelerate the deterioration of the rocks that serve as supports for the foundation of the Harbor of Refuge lighthouse.

“The lighthouse sits right at the opening of the Delaware Bay, and you get a lot of currents and a lot of wave action and nor’easters, et cetera,” said William “Red” Moulinier, past president of the Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation. “We’re a bull’s-eye for these nor’easters.”

Built in 1926, the Harbor of Refuge lighthouse is the third guiding light installed at the end of a lengthy breakwater that juts out from Cape Henlopen. The nearly 8,000-foot-long breakwater was built in 1901 to give passing ships a safe place to stay during storms.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

A temporary light was installed at the end of the breakwater between the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay in 1902. That was replaced by a three-story wooden structure in 1908. Storm damage to that building over the years made it unsafe for lighthouse operators to use.

The current tower was built out of cast iron, designed to weather the most punishing Atlantic storms. And while the structure is still standing, its foundation is on much shakier ground.

“A lot of the stone that supports [the base] of the lighthouse is missing,” Moulinier said. “We believe it’s just tumbled down the breakwater, and we’re concerned about the stability of the light.”

Years of increased wave action have gradually deepened the waters around the lighthouse from about 50 feet when it was first built to about 100 or 120 feet now.

“It’s a dramatic, dramatic difference,” he said. “That whole bottom section of the bay has gotten scoured out. And I believe that the rocks are kind of sinking. So, you know, it’s not an easy fix of what’s happening.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor
Giant rocks are seen away from the base of the lighthouse
Giant rocks have washed away directly adjacent to the base of the lighthouse, seen here in 2019. (Rick Ziegler/Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation)

Figuring out how hard the fix will be, and how expensive, is now a task for the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps will use $250,000 from the $1.4 billion federal Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in November.

“A vital part of our nautical infrastructure is the safe passage of ships coming in and out of our part of America,” said U.S. Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, who met with Biden shortly after he was elected to start the work of getting the legislation approved.

“It’s enough money — a quarter-million dollars — to figure out what actually does need to be done to make sure that a hundred years from now we’ll still have breakwaters, and we’ll still have a safe refuge for shipping coming and going up into and out of the Delaware River,” Carper said. “To make sure we have a lighthouse that’s there to keep our ships and their crews safe as we go into the next of the next century.”

The funding will pay for a feasibility study, including an engineering analysis of the breakwater and the foundation on which the lighthouse sits.

A lighthouse is pictured in 2011
The breakwater extended much further towards Delaware Bay just 10 years ago, as seen in this photo from 2011. (Rick Ziegler/Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation)

“It will make some determinations on how we should design a project to actually make it a more stable structure,” said John Kane, senior policy adviser for the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee.

At nearly 100 years old, the lighthouse has historic significance for visitors to Delaware’s beaches, but it also still serves a nautical purpose of keeping ships heading through Delaware Bay to ports in Wilmington, Philadelphia, and elsewhere away from the breakwater.

“That lighthouse serves a purpose for commercial shipping and also [for] your recreational boaters. They depend on it in a huge way,” Moulinier said “I believe just from that viewpoint, the lighthouse is invaluable.”

Winter storms in 2010 damaged the docks alongside the breakwater that provided access to the lighthouse, which made it impossible to offer tours. The Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation was able to obtain a $1 million grant to build a replacement dock customized to withstand harsh conditions.

That dock was installed at the breakwater in 2016. The exterior of the lighthouse was painted and the interior restored in 2017.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal