Digest>Archives> Aug/Sep 2004

Night Lifesavers Rescue a Light Keeper and His Family from the Perils of the Sea

By Bob Trapani, Jr.


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The original Cape Henlopen Beacon Light, built in ...

The sands of Cape Henlopen, Delaware, have always been a dynamic phenomenon ever since Colonial times when the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse was erected on the “Great Dune” at the mouth of the Delaware Bay. Though maintaining a lighthouse on these “living” sands was a necessary endeavor in order to protect shipping, the quest could be best summed up as terribly frustrating.

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A U.S. Life-Saving Service surf man on beach ...

Mother Nature has always been intent on moving the shifting sands of Cape Henlopen by forcing the golden granules to migrate in a steady north-northwest direction on the shoulders of the wind. This annual occurrence forced the Lighthouse Service to find alternative solutions for lighting the migrating point of the cape. By 1825, mariners could no longer utilize the guiding light of Cape Henlopen Lighthouse to safely enter the Delaware Breakwater area since the sands of the point extended north more than one mile beyond the venerable sentinel.

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An engraving depicting a surf man walking the ...

To solve the problem of guiding ships into the safe harbor of Delaware Breakwater, the Cape Henlopen Beacon was erected in 1825. Originally, the light keeper of Cape Henlopen Lighthouse was required to tend both the main light and the beacon light. This task required the keeper to walk the sandy cape, many times

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A drawing of the screw pile Cape Henlopen Beacon ...

in treacherous weather conditions, on a 1 1/2 mile round trip twice a day to keep the lights burning bright.

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Cape Henlopen Lighthouse. Courtesy of the Bob ...

This arrangement, though effective, would prove temporary in nature. “By 1864, the cape had extended another 1,200 feet beyond the beacon light, and it was decided to construct a new lighthouse closer to the tip of the Cape,” lighthouse historian Jim Gowdy stated in his book, Guiding Lights of the Delaware River & Bay. “Because of difficulties encountered with occasional flooding at the previous light station, the lighthouse design chosen for the new Cape Henlopen Beacon was a screw pile light.”

The new lighthouse incorporated a lantern atop the keeper's dwelling and showed a fourth order, fixed white light 45 feet above sea level. Nine cast-iron screw piles that were driven 6 feet, 9 inches into the shifting sands of Cape Henlopen supported the two-story dwelling, which kept the structure above the raging surf that frequently inundated the cape during strong storms. Though the screw pile design solved the light station's flooding problems, as in the case of the 1825 beacon, the solution would again prove temporary.

During the ensuing years, the beacon's light keeper watched as the Atlantic Ocean slowly encroached on the light station. High tides were reaching under the screw pile structure by 1883, methodically eroding away the sandy foundation that supported the lighthouse. The 1884 Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board foretold the doom of the Cape Henlopen Beacon Light, reporting, “...the beach is being cut away under this station, so that at nearly every high tide, the sea comes under the house. In December 1883, brush loaded with stone was placed around the station, which caused the sand to bank up but in a few weeks, a storm carried it all away. The station is in good order but cannot be considered safe, as a single long violent storm might throw down the beacon.”

All lighthouses stand for one solitary purpose - to save lives and property, but in the case of the Cape Henlopen Beacon Light, its lifesaving powers were nearly extinguished on January 9, 1884 by a powerful wind-driven surf. In fact, the irony of this harrowing night was that it would turn out that Lighthouse Keeper Joseph Hall and his family would be the ones needing saving from the perils of the sea.

A strong southeast wind was blowing and a heavy sea running when Surf man Maull left the Cape Henlopen Life-Saving Station for the midnight to 4:00 a.m. patrol on the morning of January 9th. Trudging northward through quick sand and avoiding the breakers pounding the Cape, Surf man Maull eventually came upon the imperiled light keeper and his family, who were trapped atop the screw pile structure. At this point, the strong seas washed away the exterior staircases and were threatening to bring down the lighthouse altogether. Keeper Hall hailed the assistance of Surf man Maull, but the lifesaver was powerless to rescue the light keeper and his family without help and equipment.

Meanwhile back at the lifesaving station, Keeper John A. Clampitt began to worry when his No. 3 surf man didn't return at 4:00 a.m., especially since the seas were heavy and a thick fog was prevailing at the same time. Keeper Clampitt quickly acted on the situation by dispatching another surf man to search for the missing crewmember. “Patrol No. 2 left the station 4 o'clock, had great difficulty in getting to the point of cape as the sea was cutting slews through the beach,” Keeper Clampitt recorded in his daily station log. “When he (Surf man Howard) got to the point of the cape, he met patrol No. 3 working his way back to the station for assistance to get the people out of the lighthouse as they were in danger of the house being washed down... their escape having washed away and heavy pieces of wreckage washing up against the piling.”

Once Surf man Maull returned to the lifesaving station, he explained the danger to the light keeper and his family. The news prompted Keeper Clampitt to hastily summon and brief his crew of the situation before springing into action. Keeper Clampitt later penned this description of the rescue in his daily station log, saying, “As soon as I got the news, I started with five men to assist them in getting ashore. As soon as we got to the lighthouse, I found the tide had run off so we could wade to the house and with the aid of a 16-foot ladder, we got on the porch. I went in the house, found the people very much excited and wanted to land. I told the keeper to get the lady and child ready and we would land them, which we did in very few moments. We took the woman and child to the big lighthouse and the keeper went to the fog horn to relieve the keeper who was on watch at the fog horn at the time. We all arrived back to the station about 11 o'clock.”

It is worth noting that not only did the surf men of the United States Life-Saving Service perform their duties admirably, by rescuing the keeper and his family from the endangered lighthouse but that Keeper Hall himself exhibited an incredible sense of duty as well. Despite being trapped by raging seas during a sleepless night and enduring great stress and anxiety for the safety of his wife and child, Keeper Joseph Hall did not beg off the duty of relieving his counterpart at the Cape Henlopen Fog Signal Station. This selfless sense of duty was a tribute to both Keeper Hall and the United States Lighthouse Service.

As for the Cape Henlopen Beacon, the end was near. The 1885 Annual Report records the light's demise, stating, “This beacon, having become unsafe from the undermining of its screw pile foundation, the light was, on October 1, 1884, discontinued and the beacon, with the exception of the piles, was removed.” The United States Lighthouse Service established the Delaware Breakwater East End Lighthouse in 1885 to assume the duties of the doomed beacon light of guiding mariners around the dangerous cape. The ever-shifting sands that undermined the Cape Henlopen Beacon would also later claim the legendary Cape Henlopen Lighthouse when the stately sentinel toppled from the “Great Dune” into the surf below on April 13, 1926. Though the “living” sands of Cape Henlopen continue to migrate northward today, their everlasting march will not erase the memory of the guiding lights of the cape and their keepers' humanitarian service to mankind.

This story appeared in the Aug/Sep 2004 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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