Popular Delaware beach state park gets historic upgrades

Observation Tower 7 is a fire control tower that was used at Fort Miles to locate targets and direct the firing of guns. Visitors who climb to the top get a great look at the rest of the park and into the Delaware Bay. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Observation Tower 7 is a fire control tower that was used at Fort Miles to locate targets and direct the firing of guns. Visitors who climb to the top get a great look at the rest of the park and into the Delaware Bay. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

The wind was whipping atop the dunes in Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park as state leaders celebrated the opening of new amenities at the Fort Miles Museum and Historical Area this week. 

A new overlook adjacent to Battery 519 allows visitors to see the same views soldiers did while manning the guns at the fort during World War II. A new parking lot and paved road should make it easier for visitors to access the recently-upgraded museum inside the gun battery.

“Cape Henlopen has always been known for the most tremendous natural beauty, now we’re able to showcase the tremendous and important historical significance of this park,” said state Sen. Ernie Lopez, who represents the nearby area.

The park recorded nearly 600,000 visitors in fiscal year 2016-17, according to a state-funded study released in 2017. Those visitors contributed nearly $130 million to the local economy. 

“Every general-fund dollar that goes into our state parks returns $40 into the Delaware economy, so it’s also an economic investment,” said Shawn Garvin, who leads the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, the agency that oversees state parks.

Delaware Environmental Secretary Shawn Garvin addresses a crowd gathered on the new overlook at Fort Miles inside Cape Henlopen State Park. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Fort Miles was built at the mouth of Delaware Bay in 1941 as a way to protect the Delaware River and, more broadly, Philadelphia from German submarines. The fort’s concrete gun batteries, built into the tall dunes, held 16-inch guns that could fire 2-ton projectiles up to 25 miles, easily covering the distance from the Delaware shore to Cape May, New Jersey.

Though the fort never fired on Nazi ships, German U-boat 858 was one of the first to surrender to the United States at Fort Miles in May 1945.

After the war, the facility and surrounding land was declared to be surplus and were eventually handed over to the state, which created Cape Henlopen State Park in 1964. Though the park is now one of the most popular in the state, the old military facilities were abandoned and fell into disrepair.

Over the past 20 years, the Fort Miles Historical Association has been working to restore the site with money from the state and groups like the Longwood Foundation. Association president Gary Wray said more than $5 million has been invested in that restoration effort. 

Gary Wray is the president of the Fort Miles Historical Association. He says the goal is to make Fort Miles the best WWII museum in the country inside a WWII facility. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

“By improving this park, we enhance the visitor experience, and we get more visitors,” Wray said. 

The improvements also will help volunteers tell the story of the fort better for those extra visitors.

In addition to putting artifacts from the coastal protection site in the bunker-turned-museum, the group has installed an artillery park with guns used in the war. The most significant addition —  both in size and historical importance — is a 66-foot-long gun from the USS Missouri. The gun was on board the Missouri in September 1945, when Japan surrendered to U.S. forces in Tokyo Bay.

A 66-foot long gun from the USS Missouri sits near the entrance of the bunker museum. There are plans to place a massive piece of wreckage from the USS Arizona nearby. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

“The reason I wanted the Missouri barrel was because the Japanese delegation had to walk right past it to surrender to General MacArthur,” Wray said.

The massive gun, now on display outside Battery 519, helps Fort Miles tell the story of the end of World War II. 

Soon, the fort will be able to better tell the story of the war’s start, too. There’s an agreement for it to acquire a two- or three-ton piece of wreckage from the USS Arizona. 

“We’re in the process now of working out exactly where we’re going to put it and how we’re going to display it,” Wray said. “Our ultimate goal is to honor the 800 Delawareans who fell in WWII and somehow put their names all around it in a monument.”

Wray has ambitious goals for the fort’s future: “We want to be the best WWII museum in the country inside a WWII facility, and I think we’re well on our way to doing that.”

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

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.