The road to Fenwick Island was never easy to navigate.
In 1938, David Long, a longtime coastal resident, wrote in the Milford Chronicle, “When I first became acquainted with Fenwick Island, to get onto the island one had to use a large scow or lighter, large enough to take a team across. By a couple of posts settled into the ground, with a long rope reaching across the strait tied to the posts, you conveyed your own self across by pulling yourself forward or backward by the rope”.
Before the European colonists arrived, Native Americans visited the beach by hiking across a marshy spit of land that connected Fenwick Island to the mainland. After the American Revolution, a shallow trench was dug to allow small boats to pass between Little Assawoman and Big Assawoman bays, and the shallow waterway was affectionately named “The Ditch.”
The Ditch and the two narrow inlets made Fenwick an island; and the lack of a dry connection with the mainland discouraged all but the hardy from visiting the tip of the southern Delaware coast.
The inlets eventually filled with silt. The Ditch, however, grew deeper and wider, and it remained a significant obstacle for those traveling to Fenwick Island by land, until a wooden bridge was built across the waterway in the late 19th century.
Fenwick Island was not only difficult to reach, but ships also had problems navigating past this part of the Delaware coast.
Viewed from the unsteady deck of a sailing ship, the high wooded ground near the border with Maryland combined with the slight bulge in the southern Delaware coast to make Fenwick Island look somewhat like Cape Henlopen.
In 1740, William Burton reported that Fenwick Island “has the appearance of a cape from the sea.” Captains who sailed too close to the coast to get a good look at Fenwick Island risked running aground on the dangerous shoals that lurked below the water.
In 1859, Fenwick Island received a boost when its signature landmark, a lighthouse, was built near the southern border of Delaware. The 87-foot beacon drew attention to Fenwick Island, but it took several decades before vacationers began to arrive in any numbers.
In 1934, the state demolished the single-lane bridge over the Ditch and built a more modern two-lane structure. In addition, a hard-surfaced road was constructed between Bethany Beach and the Maryland line connecting Fenwick Island to the rest of the Delaware coast.
The opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1952 created a flood of beachgoers who drove to the Delaware coast. In 1959, the Washington Sunday Star noted, “Observance of the 100th year of operation of a lighthouse at Fenwick Island … has served to focus attention upon a little publicized but growing coastal resort lying between the larger, more publicized resorts of Rehoboth Beach, Del., and Ocean City, Md.”
The Sunday Star commented further, “In the last five years, Fenwick Island has made tremendous strides forward. Modern motels and restaurants have been constructed and Fenwick Island has become a favored recreational spot of an increasing number of vacationists who enjoy its fine beach and quiet atmosphere just a short drive, north or south, from larger, more populous resorts.
“Several large developments have appeared, some offering small-boat anchorage in “backyard” man-made lagoons, that connect with inland waterways.”
Buoyed by better roads, a modern bridge, and the signature structure of the lighthouse, Fenwick Island had finally come of age.
David James Long, “Salt Mines of Fenwick, Profitable Del. Venture,” Milford Chronicle, October 30, 1938.
Mary Pat Kyle, Fenwick Island Delaware A Brief History, Charleston: The History Press, 2008, pp. 39-43; 50-51.
William B. Marye, “The Sea Coast of Maryland,” Maryland Historical Society Magazine, Vol. 40, No. 2, June, 1945, pp. 102-106
Sunday Star, Aug. 23, 1959.