In October of 2018, my wife and I embarked on the Lighthouse Challenge of New Jersey. In a little over 36 hours,
we visited thirteen lighthouses and lifesaving stations throughout the Garden State. From starting at Sandy Hook Light in northern New Jersey to ending at Tinicum Rear Range light in Paulsboro along the Delaware River, we ventured to the numerous scenic structures along the NJ coast. We had a great time, and several months ago, we began searching for new lighthouse challenges to try. With nothing approaching the scale of the New Jersey challenge, we decided to create our own adventure: to visit all of the lighthouses in Delaware, a neighboring state with over 380 miles of coastline. Surely, a state with such a large maritime presence must have countless lighthouses to help direct shipping traffic safely into its harbors.
The short answer is… yes. Kind of. Maybe.
Come along, then, on a weekend journey filled with adventures, misadventures, incomplete directions, and long-forgotten (or in some cases long-since-demolished) lighthouses:
The Delaware Lighthouse Adventure
Our weekend adventure: almost four hundred miles of driving from Saturday morning until Sunday afternoon, as we followed the Delaware coastline from the Delaware River to the Delaware Bay.
No beautiful, sunny skies here. Our Saturday morning started under a layer of gray, with temperatures struggling to break out of the 50s. On the plus side, the New Jersey Turnpike was mercifully traffic-free at 8:00 am.
After crossing from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, we followed I-95 South into Delaware, and our adventure began. Marcus Hook Range
Our first destination took us to a quiet, residential neighborhood, with one notable landmark: a 72-foot tall steel lighthouse!
Built in 1918, Marcus Hook Range was one of two lighthouses constructed to aid in navigation along a nearby stretch of the Delaware River. Range lighthouses work in pairs – one light will be close to the water, while the other will be further inland. When the lights are aligned, a passing ship can calculate its bearing. We were not able to visit, as the lighthouse, long since decommissioned, is now private property. In addition, the keeper’s house (the red brick two-story building in the previous photo) is a private residence (via Lighthouse Friends). The homeowners were sitting on the porch, so not wanting to intrude, we took a few photos and headed to our next destination. Cherry Island Range
Following the route we had planned in advance, we were surprised that our next destination took us into a large apartment complex.
More surprising was when Google Maps told us to park at the apartment complex’s picnic area, get out of the car, and walk to our destination.
Walking down a dirt hill, cutting through some bushes, and following a worn path, we came across maybe the least impressive lighthouse of the day: Cherry Island Range. The original Cherry Island Rear Range lighthouse, another in a series of range lights designed to help mariners navigate the Delaware River, once stood on this spot. Now, only a single red light on a steel framework remains (via Lighthouse Friends). New Castle Range
Not everything went according to plan on our trip. Our first attempt to reach New Castle Range Lighthouse saw us instead pull up at a train yard. Whoops. A few minutes of checking the map again, and we were back on our way.
My wife said that according to the description online, the lighthouse was in the parking lot of an industrial area. That was putting it mildly – it felt like the setting of a scene from The Sopranos in which Christopher Moltisanti and Paulie Walnuts are about to dispose of the body of an underworld enemy.
Fortunately, the Accord and I are from New Jersey… we know how to handle ourselves in places like this.
A house sits on the edge of the property, and beside it is New Castle Range, a steel lighthouse built in the 1960s to replace the original light (via Wikipedia). Unlike many lighthouses that are no longer in duty, New Castle Range is still an active navigation light. With “Private Property” signs at the edge of the driveway, this was as far as I dared to proceed. After snapping a single photo, we proceeded to our next destination. Liston Rear Range
As we headed down Port Penn Road, we suddenly saw a steel tower rising up from the countryside.
Built in 1906, Liston Rear Range Lighthouse rises to a height of 177 feet. Although no longer in use as a navigation aid, Liston Rear Range holds one notable feat: it is the tallest lighthouse in Delaware (via Wikipedia). With nowhere to stop near the lighthouse for a photo, I parked at a cemetery a few hundred yards down the road, broke out my telephoto lens, and snapped some shots. Our next destination was Liston Front Range Lighthouse… except it wasn’t to be. The front range light is located down a private drive of a residential community, and while we are adventurous, that doesn’t include trespassing. Ah, well. It was then onto the next lighthouse on our list… or maybe not. Mispillion Lighthouse
About a half hour south of Liston Rear Range, we turned off the main road and headed down a narrow-two lane drive that bisected coastal marshland. High tide meant that water lapped at the edge of the road, and at one point actually covered the road, forcing us to forge through some water (nothing new for the Accord after all of our wet weather driving the past few months!). We then arrived at what turned out to be the location of a former lighthouse. Mispillion Light, built in 1831, burned to the ground and was replaced by the DuPont Nature Center (via Wikipedia). To add to our adventure, the Nature Center was also closed for the season. We were completely and totally alone.
As we stood on the banks of the Christiana River, contemplating our less than stellar luck during the trip, my wife suddenly perked up. “Hey, I have an idea!” she said brightly.
“How about lunch?” she asked. We had intended to stop for a picnic lunch somewhere… and with the sun beginning to poke through the clouds, this seemed like a great spot!
Who needs documentaries on TV when you have nature right in front of you, in truly high definition? The seagulls made for fascinating viewing during our meal.
This cormorant, too busy cleaning itself to notice the gulls around it, was a cool subject.
Despite there being no lighthouse in existence, lunch at the DuPont Nature Center was one of the highlights of our trip! Fueled up after a fun picnic, we were ready to press on. Lightship Overfalls and Lewes
As we began the drive to the city of Lewes, Delaware, I stopped short at this “welcome” sign… should I call 911 now, or later?
Moments after we entered Lewes, the clouds finally broke and the sun came out. Instead of a lighthouse, we were visiting a lightship – Overfalls. Designed for use in locations where it is impractical or impossible to build a structure, lightships are essentially floating lighthouses. Overfalls was also the last lightship built for the United States Lighthouse Service before it merged with the US Coast Guard (via Wikipedia).
Built in 1884, the Lewes Life-Saving Station was the centerpiece of a vital operation just four years after it opened. As the Blizzard of 1888 slammed into the eastern coast of the United States, approximately 50 ships took refuge in Lewes harbor, as the seawall was thought to offer protection from the storm. Instead, the storm turned its full fury on the harbor, as all 50 ships sunk. Personnel from the Lewes Life Saving Station (along with staff from the nearby Cape Henlopen Life Saving Station, joined by citizens of Lewes) sprung into action. Despite the catastrophic damage to ships, only 8 deaths were recorded in the harbor – a testament to the work of the US Life Saving Service and the local volunteers (via Delaware Public Archives).
A short walk from Lightship Overfalls is the Shipcarpenter Street Campus of the Lewes Historical Society. The campus houses nine buildings of historical importance to Lewes, all dating from the late 17th to early 19th centuries.
Shipcarpenter Street is located in the historic district of Lewes. The neighborhood is dotted with numerous homes that date to the 18th and 19th centuries, many of which remain private residences.
Nestled in the heart of the Lewes historic district is the Ryves Holt house, the oldest standing structure in Delaware. Built in 1665, it is now the Lewes Historical Society visitor center and gift shop. Cape Henlopen State Park
Our last stop of the day was Cape Henlopen State Park. After a day of cloudy skies, rain, inaccessible lighthouses, destroyed lighthouses, and wrong turns, we were rewarded with a magnificent beach and view of the Delaware Bay.
From the beach, we could see not one but two lighthouses! Harbor of Refuge Light, built in 1908, exemplifies the cast iron “sparkplug” lighthouse design. Harbor of Refuge remains in active use to aid shipping navigation (via Wikipedia).
Close to shore is the Delaware Breakwater East End Light, built in 1885. Although no longer in active use (it was replaced by Harbor of Refuge), it is now owned by the state of Delaware and is open for tours in the summertime (via Wikipedia).
Given the Delaware Bay’s proclivity for violent storms, strong winds, and changing tides, it is estimated that thousands of shipwrecks dot the bay (via Tower Shores). On the beach we came across this curious structure – it is the remains of a 19th century ship that was destroyed by a hurricane, and is now an archeological site. Warning signs (and rusty nails poking through the sand) tell visitors to stay away, but as you can see from the footprints, few, if any, heed the warning. C’mon, people. Do better.
As we stood on the beach, we caught sight of a ferry in the Cape May – Lewes Ferry fleet. Our final destination of the day would be to park the Accord on the deck of the ferry and enjoy a pleasant ride back to New Jersey. Cape May – Lewes Ferry
Having purchased our tickets in advance, we got in line to board the Cape May – Lewes Ferry for a 90-minute ride to New Jersey. Arriving about forty-five minutes before departure, we left the car to explore the terminal.
Grain on the Rocks, a restaurant and bar at the ferry terminal, made for a delightful way to pass the time when we were waiting for our ship to arrive. Ten minutes prior to departure, an announcement lets us know that it was time to head to our car and prepare to board.
I drove my Honda Accord onto the MV New Jersey, following behind another Honda Accord, for a voyage across the Delaware Bay, to a destination of Cape May. It was a journey that included all of my favorite things!
For the second time in my ownership, the Accord and I went to sea together!
With blue skies and relatively calm seas, our journey began!
I knew from previous journeys that the ferry offered several excellent photographic opportunities, including a great view of Delaware Breakwater East End Light.
A flock of cormorants flew past the ship. I have only ever seen solitary cormorants in the wild, so it was surprising to watch a group of them in flight together. While they will sometimes hunt for food alone, I learned that cormorants will usually travel in a flock (via All About Birds).
We sailed past some rush hour traffic…
In the middle of the bay, I took a screenshot of the map on my phone… that’s a lot of blue around us!
As we neared the New Jersey coast, an iconic landmark came into view: the Cape May Lighthouse.
The ferry staff work as a well-oiled machine when it comes to loading and unloading the ferry. Only a few moments after arriving, we were driving onto the solid ground of New Jersey. The ferry ride made for a fun end to our trip! Odds and Ends
Dinner was takeout from Fish and Fancy, a seafood takeout restaurant near my family’s shore house. I went with the crab cake dinner (of course) while my wife enjoyed the seafood combo of scallops, shrimp, and grouper. Yum!
And no trip to Cape May is complete without breakfast from Uncle Bill’s Pancake House! That’ll be pecan pancakes for me and gluten-free pecan pancakes for my wife. Double yum!!
Before starting the long drive home, we enjoyed a peaceful walk beside the water. Now that the summer tourist season is over, my wife and I had the beach entirely to ourselves. Not a bad way to start a new week!
On our drive home, we encountered little traffic, arriving at our front door a little more than two hours after departing. The Accord was once again a rock star on another road trip adventure, now nearing the 184,000-mile mark. Onward! Wrapping Up
Our trip to visit the lighthouses of Delaware was certainly… memorable. Despite the challenges, though, it was a fun time, and gave us plenty to laugh about afterward, proving once again that the most interesting trips aren’t always the ones that work out according to plan. The only lighthouse we did not visit was Fenwick Island Light, as we ran out of time. Fenwick, a more traditional lighthouse than the ones we encountered on this trip, is located near the Delaware/Maryland state line. So we’ll plan a return trip in the future to see this spot and complete our personal “Delaware Lighthouse Challenge.”
Thanks for coming along on this… unique… adventure along the open road ahead!
‘Til next time.