By the second half of the 19th century, the safe harbor
behind the Delaware Breakwater was no longer deep enough
for the US Navy's largest vessels. To remedy this,
work began on an outer breakwater in 1896.
The new breakwater was built about 1.25 miles
north of the original breakwater. Work on the
7950-foot breakwater was completed in 1901.
The new safe harbor was called the National Harbor of Refuge.
The breakwater was first illuminated by a pair of temporary
beacons placed at either end; the south end received a fog
bell as well. The first temporary beacons were installed in
1902. The southern navigation aids were lost to a storm
only one year later, and subsequently replaced.
In 1906, work finally commenced on a permanent light to mark
the south end of the breakwater. The foundation was completed
in 1907, and the light completed in 1908. The fourth-order
lens was first exhibited on November 20, 1908.
During planning, the design for the structure changed from brick
to wood frame. The new three-story structure was not suited
for the rigors of its exposed position. Storms threw
waves completely over the top of the tower. The lighthouse was shifted
two inches of its foundation in an 1918 storm, and by another two
inches in 1920.
The battered station was finally extinguished on April 12, 1926.
(The Cape Henlopen light
would succumb to erosion one day later.) On November 15, 1926, the new
Harbor of Refuge light was established. The new cast-iron structure
was designed to endure Atlantic storms. This construction
was severely tested on several occasions. A 1929 storm hit the lighthouse
with 78 mph winds. In 1960, hurricane Donna broke a window on the main
deck. In 1962, the "Storm of the Century" hit Delaware Bay -
the lighthouse was partially flooded when a wave broke a second story
window, high winds shook the tower, and the high seas completely submerged
the breakwater. The caisson was struck by a ship in 1986.
During the 1970's, Coastguardsman Angelo Rigazio served at
the light. By this time, keepers where flown to the light
by helicopter. Four men served the light, but only two or
three were present at any given time. Keepers rotated two
weeks on, one week off. $60 a month per man was allotted
for food, which was purchased at the Cape May commissary.
Keepers passed the time by playing chess over the radio
with other stations. Fishing was another pastime.
Passing boats occasionally delivered lobster or beer -
the latter of which was hidden in the rocks when a Coast Guard
vessel was seen approaching the station! When the light
was automated in 1973, Rigazio, the last Officer in Charge,
locked up the station for the last time.
Despite difficult conditions, the lighthouse remains today as an active
aid to navigation. A modern optic has replaced
the Fresnel lens. In 2002,
the Delaware River and Bay Lighthouse Foundation (DRBLHF), a non-profit,
volunteer organization, signed a lease to manage the structure.
The organization was granted ownership by the Department of the Interior
in 2004 under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act
of 2000. The light was recognized as a state historic landmark in 2005.
In 2005, insurance rates increased dramatically,
which put the DRBLHF $10,000 over budget.
A radiothon helped raise enough money to cover
the costs. As of 2006, they offer tours of the lighthouse.
They are also working with the Army Core of Engineers to secure
$600,000 to stabilize the structure. This includes restoring
rock near the light tower, and filling cavities in the caisson.
Guiding Lights of the Delaware River and Bay, Gowdy and Ruth pp. 257-264
Lighthouse of New Jersey and Delaware, Trapani pp. 10-17
Lighthouses of the Mid-Atlantic Coast, DeWire and Johnson pp. 11-17
Mid-Atlantic Lighthouses, Roberts and Jones pp. 55-56
The Keeper's Log Winter 2004, Spring 2005, Summer 2005, Winter 2006