“Historic Cape Henlopen Lighthouse, on the Delaware Bay, two miles south of Lewes,” the Milford Chronicle reported On April 16, 1926, “crumbled and toppled into the sea shortly after noon on Tuesday (April 13).”
Completed a decade before the American Revolution, the lighthouse guided countless ships past the treacherous waters near Cape Henlopen. The beacon was beloved by residents of Lewes and Rehoboth. When the tower fell, it was mourned by many, none more than artists Ethel and William Leach.
Born in 1878, Ethel Pennewill Brown studied art at Howard Pyle’s Wilmington studio. At the end of the 19th century, Pyle was a frequent vacationer at Rehoboth; and in 1917, Brown followed suit when she purchased a house on Columbia Avenue. She believed that the clean, bright air of Rehoboth made the resort the ideal place for her to paint.
In 1922, Ethel married William Leach at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lewes. Will was also an artist, and together they often walked along the beach from Rehoboth to Cape Henlopen. At that time, a popular Rehoboth pastime was to hike from the resort to the lighthouse.
According to one of the town’s early 20th century boosters: “If one be a little venturesome, he will doubtless want to tramp along the beach to where the Lighthouse stands, and if there are two or three or more in the party, it will no doubt appear to be sure-enough lark.”
In her monumental study of Ethel Leach in Delaware History, Jann Haynes Gilmore quoted one of the artist’s letters that described one of her walks on the beach:
“At low tide, we walked or drove along the sands — past the wreck, the smaller dunes — the Life Saving Station. On again — until we came to the great dune and the Old Henlopen Light! … Such quietness — such peace — a feeling that we were in a desert at the End of the Earth — and the lighthouse towering above on the great hill of sand.”
During the 1920s, Ethel’s success as an artist continued to blossom. In 1923, she won the silver ribbon at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for Pilot Town — Lewes.
During this time, Ethel and Will often exhibited their work in the resort, and they both saw the need for a way for local artists to be recognized.
While visiting other vacation areas, Ethel had noticed how resorts could host thriving art exhibitions. Active in the Village Improvement Association, she helped to establish the Rehoboth Art League.
In 1926, it was no secret that the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse was in trouble. When the beacon was constructed in 1765, the lighthouse stood a quarter mile from the surf, but a century and a half of constant erosion ate away at the high dune on which the tower rested.
The moving sand left the old lighthouse on the edge of a sandy precipice, and in April 1926, the beloved beacon collapsed.
Will Leach was one of the first people to reach the fallen tower. He retrieved the door and a number of other objects from the fallen tower lighthouse. The door was eventually donated to the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes.
On a small piece of granite from the beacon, Ethel painted an exquisite illustration of the lighthouse. This piece was given to Mrs. Frances Salin, and it was eventually donated to the Rehoboth Historical Society.
This poignant fragment serves as a reminder of days gone by when the highlight of a visit to Rehoboth was a lark along the beach to see the “lighthouse towering above on the great hill of sand.”
Milford Chronicle, April 16, 1926.
Jann Haynes Gilmore, “Ethel Pennewilll Brown Leach: Delaware Artist of time, Place, and Season,” Delaware History, Fall-Winter 1998-1999, Spring-Summer 1999, Vol. 28, No. 2-3, pp. 89-94, 115-116, 163-167, 193-195.
John Stevenson, Rehoboth of Yesteryear, privately printed, 1981, p. 25.