Digest>Archives> October 2003

A Lightkeeper’s Grandson Helps Establish The First Historic Marker for a Delaware Lighthouse

By Bob Trapani, Jr.


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L to R: Dr. Bill Duncan, Bob Trapani, Jr. and ...
Photo by: Ann-Marie Trapani

Like many coastal states, Delaware boasts a proud lighthouse heritage that dates back to 1767 when colonial merchants raised monies from a lottery to establish the legendary Cape Henlopen Lighthouse at the mouth of the Delaware Bay. The Lighthouse Service would later construct another 26 manned light stations in Delaware before the golden age of lighthouses came to a close. Sadly, only nine of Delaware’s historic lighthouses survive today.

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Lightkeeper George Washington Duncan Photo ...

Despite such a rich lighthouse legacy, none of the Delaware light stations have ever been honored with a historic marker. That all changed on June 14, 2003 when Delaware Public Archives established the first historic marker for a Delaware lighthouse at the former site of the Port Penn Range Front Light, near Port Penn, Delaware. A passionate roadside ceremony commemorated this historic occasion by paying tribute to not only Port Penn Range Front Light, but also the state’s lighthouse heritage and the persistence of one individual who worked nearly two years to make this proud moment a reality.

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Port Penn Range Front Light circa 1900 Courtesy ...

“The Port Penn project was a first of sorts, this being the first marker concerning lighthouse history that has been requested,” said Russ McCabe of Delaware’s Public Archives. “In this case, the request for the marker was made by Dr. Bill Duncan of Wilmington, Delaware, whose grandfather was one of the two keepers of the light.”

For Dr. Duncan, the satisfaction for all his hard work and dedication was derived from the fact that the history of Port Penn Range Front Light was finally being recognized and honored. Dr. Duncan simply said the occasion for establishing the historic marker was “recognition long overdue.”

The Port Penn Range Front Light was built in 1876 as part of the first set of range lights established in Delaware on the Delaware River. The 1878 Description of Lighthouse Sites of the Fourth Lighthouse District states the lighthouse was situated about 900 feet southwest of the mouth of St. Augustine Creek, and about 2.5 miles southwest of the Port Penn wharf along the public road. As with many of the range front lights along the Delaware River, the light at Port Penn sat close to the water - some 500 feet off the river bank behind an embankment of mud to protect it from the daily ebb and flow of the tides.

The lighthouse had a focal plane of 41.5 feet and exhibited a white light from a 26-inch diameter lens with a silvered reflector. The wooden structure was a two-story building built atop a stone foundation and painted white with green shutters and lead-colored trim.

By 1879-80, the Lighthouse Service decided to make the lighthouse stand out more as a daymark along the river and therefore altered the color scheme by painting the frontal view of the lantern room, roof and structure a bright red.

Within less than two years following its construction, the Port Penn Range Front Light suffered serious damage from a vicious tempest on October 23, 1878 that wreaked havoc upon many other Delaware River and Bay lighthouses as well. High winds powered storm surge that inundated the marshland around Port Penn Range Front Light, destroying the mud embankment designed to protect the lighthouse. The force of the wind and water damaged the light structure, secondary buildings and the grounds. Though the damage was repairable, the event was merely a sign of things to come and the perpetual struggle the lighthouse would face with Mother Nature throughout its existence. In 1896, the USLHS annual report stated that “about 300 running feet of the river bank was repaired and strengthened” at the Port Penn Range Front Light. Again in 1897, a similar report recorded, “The attached kitchen was raised, re-leveled, and its foundation strengthened. The grounds around the house and barn were graded up to above storm-tide overflow, and the outbuildings were arranged in accordance.”

The Port Penn Range Front Light had only two lightkeepers during its 27 years of operation. The first lighthouse keeper was Henry C. Walter who served at the light station from December 21, 1876 to October 1, 1885. Following Walter’s tenure, George Washington Duncan was appointed the light’s last keeper. Duncan’s service to the light and the U.S. Lighthouse Service was highly respected as evidence by the comments gleaned from a State of Delaware Biographical Encyclopedia of the 1880s. According to the account, “...(George Duncan) was appointed by Charles S. Fairchild, Secretary of the Treasury, as keeper of the front range light-house at Port Penn. He still retains that position, which he has filled to the greatest satisfaction of the government and sea-faring people.” The excerpt further states that, “Naturally a mechanical genius, possessing a personal knowledge of the dangers that are always near those who ‘go down to the sea in ships,’ an energetic and conscientious employee, he takes keenest pleasure in making improvements to his station and in having his beacon burning brightly when it is needed for the guidance of mariners.”

In all, the venerable George W. Duncan served 34 years as a lightkeeper for the U.S. Lighthouse Service before retiring in 1919 at the New Castle Range Rear Light in Delaware.

The 1900s hardly took hold before the Port Penn Range Light was of no further use as an aid to navigation. Changes to the Delaware River brought about by dredging a safer and deeper shipping channel spelled doom for the lighthouse. With shipping traffic now rerouted in the river, the lights of the Port Penn Range were no longer able to show mariners center channel, and therefore were decommissioned on October 24, 1904. The federal government eventually sold the buildings and property at public auction on April 20, 1911. In his book Guiding Lights of the Delaware River & Bay, lighthouse historian Jim Gowdy states, “After the former lighthouse was sold it soon became a rental property. The condition of the dwelling went downhill over time, and later the building was destroyed by fire. Exact details about the demise of the former lighthouse are not known.”

Not only was the demise of the lighthouse a mystery, even its former location was shrouded by the passage of time. Thanks to the dedication and perseverance of Dr. Bill Duncan, the site where the former lighthouse stood has been rediscovered. Dr. Duncan located the site, which is situated in an area heavily overgrown with vegetation and phragmites reeds on Delaware Route 9 between Augustine Beach and Bayview, back in 1998. Dr. Duncan’s research and detective work not only solved a Delaware lighthouse mystery, but also uncovered the stone foundation that once supported the Port Penn Range Front Light and the broken remains of the former brick oil house.

Following his discovery of the former lighthouse site, Dr. Duncan initiated a crusade of sorts to obtain a historic marker to commemorate the site of the former lighthouse and historical importance of the vanished Port Penn Range Front Light. With the support of Delaware Representatives Joseph DiPinto and Richard Cathcart, and the help of Russ McCabe of Delaware Public Archives, Dr. Duncan’s dream became a reality after advocating for a historic marker for two years. “With the completion of this project, an important chapter in Delaware’s maritime history has been documented for all to see. Much work remains, however, to educate the public about this important but often forgotten part of our state’s past,” says Russ McCabe.

In many ways, the story of the Port Penn Range Front Light didn’t end with its demise back in the 1930s. In fact, the connections derived from the heritage of this historic light continue to bloom. Dr. Bill Duncan’s search for the Port Penn Lighthouse was followed by having the opportunity to purchase the Liston Range Front Light in 1998 — the light that replaced the Port Penn Range Front Light. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was made extra special since his grandfather’s next assignment for the U.S. Lighthouse Service following his tenure at Port Penn Range Front Light was to tend the temporary light at Liston Range Front Light from 1904 to 1906. After the purchase, Dr. Duncan had the good fortune of meeting a new friend by the name of Harry Spencer, Jr., who had grown up as a teenager in the lighthouse. Harry’s father, Harry, Sr., served as the lightkeeper of Liston Range Front Light from 1927 to 1943 and was one of the most decorated lighthouse keepers in the history of the Fourth Lighthouse District.

Today, Dr. Bill Duncan and Harry Spencer keep the memories of Delaware’s lighthouse heritage burning bright by teaching others about a way of life we won’t see again. “It is very commendable that a historic marker has been obtained for the site of the former Port Penn Range Front Light. I’m very pleased that Bill Duncan’s efforts were successful in helping to recognize the importance of Delaware lighthouse history,” says Spencer. Though obtaining a historic marker for Port Penn Range Front Light was one of Dr. Duncan’s lasting contributions to our lighthouse heritage, it may be his humble sense of duty that will serve as a greater teacher for tomorrow’s lighthouse preservationists. “It was just something I thought should be done,” says Dr. Duncan. You almost get the feeling that somewhere lightkeeper George Washington Duncan is smiling down on his grandson for continuing the family tradition of keeping a good “light.”

This story appeared in the October 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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