By Renée S. Gordon
“Delaware was the first state to enter into this union and would surely be the last to leave it.”
–Gov. William Cannon
The earliest European settlement in what is now Delaware was established as a whaling station and from that time on the events and cultures of Delaware have been shaped by its geography. Penn gained possession of the territory at the end of the 17th-century to ensure that his holdings would have access to the sea and Sussex County, more than any other, developed based on its variety of waterways. The county, one of the largest east of the Mississippi River, is a total of 1,195-sq. miles of which 20% is water with 47 bays and 24-miles of sandy beaches.
Of Southern Delaware’s 10 beaches arguably the most famous is Rehoboth. The area was founded by Wilmington Methodists as a camp meeting site in 1837 and named after a well in Genesis 26:22. They purchased 400-acres and raised funds by selling tracts of land. www.rehoboth.com
Modern Rehoboth is filled with trendy eateries, unique shopping venues and a host of sites and attractions. These factors and its location make it an ideal city from which to tour other nearby areas. Dart First State Transit Bus links the resort areas and the shopping outlets from Memorial Day through mid-September. The Jolly Trolley of Rehoboth operates between Rehoboth and Dewey Beach with stops along the way making a car unnecessary. The trolley is also available for private charters. Fees and schedules are posted online. www.jollytrolley.com
The historic Bellmoor Hotel provides outstanding accommodations for the casual traveler, the intrepid tourist or those seeking the perfect romantic getaway. The Bellmoor manages to provide all the amenities of a luxury hotel with the ambiance of a B&B. The offerings include two pools, suites with fireplaces and whirlpools, fitness facility, hot tub and day spa with more than 30 services, complimentary parking and wireless and full buffet breakfast. The Bellmoor is listed as one of the Select Registry Distinguished Inns of North America. www.thebellmoor.com
Indian River Life-Saving Station was built in 1876 and mandated to assist floundering ships and reduce the loss of life. The station, the only one in the state in its original location, is outfitted to reflect the period. Tours begin in the center with an orientation film and continue in the colorful pumpkin and cranberry Victorian station itself. It should be noted that this is a working history museum that presents a full schedule of activities including squid dissections. Interior cellphone tours start in the Mess Room where the table was always set as a symbol of welcome. Other areas are the Boat Room, complete with the station’s surfboat and rescue equipment, Keeper’s Office, Keeper’s Room and Bunk Room. www.destateparks.com
Less than 50-years after Captain Smith sailed on the Nanticoke River pirates emerged as a serious problem. They loved the region because they could use the inlets, bays and islands as places to rest, recuperate and divide their plunder. For the next century pirates and privateers would raid towns and ships laden with colonial goods. The “rock stars” of piracy, Blackbird and Captains Kidd and Avery, are known to have been in the area. King James I issued the first colonial laws against piracy in 1687. In 1788 James McAlpine was the last person to be convicted of piracy in the state. Because of this history Southern Delaware is a destination for treasure hunters who are seeking the booty that was left behind.
Fenwick Island, nestled in the southeast corner of the state, was named for Virginia’s Thomas Fenwick who purchased the property in 1686. The salt industry operated there between 1775-1825 and it became a religious oriented summer camp shortly thereafter.
The DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum, on Fenwick Island, is jewel and it is not to be missed. The museum recovers, preserves and displays articles that interpret regional maritime history. This private collection of artifacts includes 10,000 items of which 10 percent are on display. The tour begins with the story of the 1622 sinking of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha. It was a treasure ship that was part of the Spanish fleet taking North American treasure to Spain. The astonishing cargo included 24-tons of silver, 125 gold bars, indigo, tobacco, copper, armaments and jewelry. There were only 5 survivors, of the 265-man crew, 2 of which were slaves. The search for this ship lasted 16-years before it was located in 1985 and the $1.8-billion treasure was recovered.
Between 1641 and 1865 there were more than 3,000 shipwrecks from Lewes, Delaware to Cape Charles, VA and the tour continues with artifacts from some of these wrecks and others as well as interactive displays and areas that interpret the work involved in marine archeology. Gallery highlights include artifacts from the slave ship Henrietta Marie, the Titanic, emerald encased ballast, Mayan gold sculptures and a magnificent 22-kt, 10.5-ft, gold wedding chain. The chain was to be given to the Queen of Spain for use as a “loaner” to Spanish brides. Gold was often crafted into jewelry because the Spanish government did not tax jewelry. Admission is free. www.discoversea.com
The fully restored 1938 Lightship Overfalls (LV118), one of only 17 left of the 179 originally made, has been moored in the Lewes Canal since 1973. Early documents indicate that there were lightships in Egypt 2000 years ago. Then, as later, they had a light on top and were anchored offshore as beacons for passing ships. Visitors can tour the entire vessel. Particularly interesting are the captain and crew’s cabins and the pilothouse. www.overfalls.org
Slavery entered Delaware with the first permanent European settlement in the 1630s and in 1700 the initial discriminatory law, setting up a separate court for the trial of Negroes, was enacted.
Sixty years later a law was passed that permitted owners to free the enslaved and in 1767 the state’s first documented slavery debates began with the anti-slavery contingent largely in Kent County. Rural Sussex County was against a ban. In 1776 the importation of slaves into Delaware was banned and in 1789 slave ships were no longer allowed to use Delaware ports. After the American Revolution it became illegal to sell Delaware slaves to the West Indies, Georgia or the Carolinas, amended to include Maryland and Virginia, and in 1797 freedom was instantly given to any slave sold out of the state. By the onset of the Civil War Delaware had proportionately more freedmen than any other state with the state’s greatest number of slaves, 1,350, in Sussex County.
Delaware did not secede and Lincoln offered to emancipate all of the state’s slaves and compensate owners $500 per person. His efforts failed and it was not until the passage of the 13th Amendment in Dec. of 1865 that the slaves were freed. Slavery was not abolished by the state until the early 20th-century.
The Governor Ross Mansion & Plantation is a 20-acre complex that preserves the 1859 brick Italianate Villa-style mansion and farm dependencies including an ash house and the sole log slave quarters in the state. The slave quarters were relocated and restored to its original specifications, 24′ X 16′. Mansion tours feature original, ornate, plaster ceilings and medallions and a staircase and 99 percent original woodwork.
Gov. William Ross was a staunch confederate sympathizer and he was forced to flee to England to escape prosecution. The site presents scheduled activities and programs and is open for scheduled visitation. 302-628-9500.
The Seaford Museum, located inside a former post office, is one of the best small town museums in the country. Area history is explored through interactive stations, dioramas, artifacts, memorabilia and informational text. The galleries are chronological and begin with a facsimile of John Smith’s original map and continue through its cultural and business history. Of special note are the displays devoted to Seaford’s time as DuPont’s nylon capitol, the chicken industry and the diorama recounting the history of the black river pilots.
Midway through the museum Patty Cannon rocks on the front porch of her cabin surrounded by plaques that recount her story and the belief that she is the earliest documented female serial killer in the country. Patty’s cabin straddled the Maryland/Delaware border and due to lack of coordination between law enforcement agencies she would commit crimes in one state and retreat to the other.
Patty and her gang ran a reverse Underground Railroad. They kidnapped and sold free blacks if the price was right, if not, she robbed and killed them. She did not confine her crimes to African Americans, she would rob and kill anyone for profit. In May of 1829 she was tried and sentenced to hang the next day. She committed suicide that night. In a macabre twist, her skull wound up in the Dover City Library. www.seafordhistoricalsociety.com
A great way to end this trip is with a peaceful ride across the Nanticoke on the Woodland Ferry. The ferry, one of the oldest operating ferries in the country, dates from the 1740s and was once run by Patty Cannon’s family. The view is much as it would have been in the 18th-century.
It is hard to believe that all of Southern Delaware’s very affordable small wonders are less than two hours and a tank of gas away. You’ll find so much to love there. www.visitsoutherndelaware.com
I wish you smooth travels!
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