The shallow Mispillion River leads to Milford, which was once a prosperous shipbuilding town. When local merchants had a hard time getting through the tidal river, Congress decided that the Mispillion lighthouse needed to be erected. The project began in 1831, and was a difficult structure to maintain throughout its entire life. It served until 1986, and was in disrepair for decades prior. The story of this lighthouse, once washed away by floodwater and burned to the ground by a lightning strike, has a truly unbelievable ending.
The Mispillion River Lighthouse was one of a group of five lighthouses built in Delaware between 1764 and 1831.
The Mispillion River has had between three and five lighthouses that stood at its entrance. Poor record keeping and a history of nature's fury ruining lights make the exact number hard to pin down. The first one known was completed on Oct. 19, 1831, by Windsor Lewes. Lewes was a notoriously poor lighthouse builder, and the original wooden structure was removed and rebuilt by a new contractor just eight years later, further away from the river on the same plot of land.
This second lighthouse stood for a longer time than the first, but it still struggled to assist ships looking to come in and out of Milford.
Due to encroaching water another lighthouse was built with a fixed light 38 feet above sea level in 1843. It was refitted with a Fresnel lens in 1855. This lighthouse was sold at public auction in 1859, when it was too battered to be serviceable.
The next Mispillion lighthouse was built in 1873 - and the keeper's dwelling was remodeled the next year.
A road for better access to the light was built In 1876, showing that the public had faith this light would last. Continued support of the light included several repairs made to the property, light and road between 1879 and 1907. However, the frequent overflowing of the tides was still a big problem for the Mispillion lighthouse.
The 1873 structure is the one shown in most photographs of the Mispillion Lighthouse.
The 65-foot square tower rose from the second story of the well-maintained wooden keeper's house. The wooden building faced lots of trouble with rising flood waters, and thousands of government dollars were spent trying to save a structure that could have been built in much smarter ways. Soon, an automated light was set up, and the light keeper was no longer needed. Instead, the service hired and trained a drifter, and paid him $1 a year to make sure no vandals destroyed the site.
The Mispillion Light had a doomed history from the start - it was replaced with a steel tower in 1929, but even that didn't stand peacefully.
The lighthouse fell into disrepair after decades of neglect, and even though it was still commissioned, was largely considered an outdated relic, unused by mariners. in 1932, it was sold at a public auction, and the new owners continued to let the structure fall apart until it was finally shut down in 1986. In 2001 a group called the Keepers of Mispillion Lighthouse attempted to purchase the light, but as with all things related to the Mispillion Lighthouse, the deal fell through. Shortly thereafter, lightning struck the tower and a fire destroyed the it and gutted the house. You can't make this up - the lighthouse was seemingly never going to stand triumphantly!
Today, the DuPont Nature Center sits in the shadow of the old tower, on the site of the Mispillion Lighthouse.
The Nature Center is dedicated to teaching children about the important ecosystems at play along the river and Delaware Bay, so the site is finally being utilized to protect the waters it originally guarded. As for the lighthouse structure itself, the story doesn't quite end there. Believe it or not, after the lightning fire, while the Keepers of Mispillion Light were still trying to figure out what to do, the burned remains were secretly purchased by John and Sally Freeman, who owned a lot in Shipcarpenter Square. Shipbuilder's Square is a section of Lewes where houses are built from the remnants of historic artifacts, and the Mispillion Lighthouse remnants fit right in. In 2005 they completed rebuilding the lighthouse using parts from the old building as well as careful craftsmanship - leaving the Mispillion Lighthouse's story with a happy ending, after all.
Have you seen Shipbuilder’s Square? Can you find the Mispillion Lighthouse, finally standing on solid ground, safe from the natural disasters that tried so hard to ruin the light?
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