Sentinels on the Seashore
What Local Organizations are Doing to Preserve History on Delaware's Coast
When driving down Route 1 on the Delaware coast, you may notice something that seems a bit out of place. Some of most interesting historical landmarks in this area are the World War II observation towers.
History of Delaware’s Observation Towers
These cylindrical concrete towers, that range in size from 40–90-feet high, were built by the United States Army in the early 1940s. During World War II, American soldiers along the coasts of Delaware and New Jersey used the towers to monitor the coastlines for approaching enemy ships and submarines. Used in pairs, these Fire Control Towers triangulated large defense guns. During the Cold War, the towers were used for classified missions, defending the country against the threat of Soviet submarines.
In 1986, Tower #9 received renovations to the inside and outside, along with new equipment. Known as the Pilot Radar Tower, the tower has been used to monitor incoming and outgoing traffic into the Delaware River. The Delaware Pilots’ Association currently uses Tower #9 to control radar and communications for Delaware Bay commercial shipping.
Where are the Observation Towers on the Delaware Coastline?
Along the Delaware coastline, these fire towers can be found near Fenwick Island, Bethany Beach, Dewey Beach, Cape Henlopen and Gordon’s Pond. For years, these artifacts have sat idly, hiding in plain sight, as millions of cars annually drive by without knowing the history.
Restoration and Preservation of Delaware’s Observation Towers
With the help of the Delaware Seashore Preservation Foundation (DSPF) and the Fort Miles Historical Association (FMHA), visitors can tour the tower at Cape Henlopen State Park and hopefully more in the future.
Take a trip to Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes, to the Fort Miles Historical Area, to see Tower #7. Climb the renovated steel spiral staircase to the top of the 75-foot observation tower. On a clear day, guests can see 14-and-a-half miles of the coastal landscape, offering breathtaking 360-degree views.
Through the same partnership of the DSPF, FMHA and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s (DNREC) Division of Parks & Recreation, efforts are underway to restore Fire Control Tower #3 near Dewey Beach at Delaware Seashore State Park. These organizations hope to offer residents and visitors a piece of history and honor those who have served and continue to serve.
“There are a number of different phases involved with this restoration project,” says Ernie Felici, a board member of the DSPF.
In February 2018, one of those phases took place as an inaugural lighting ceremony was held for Tower #3. Felici, along with state and local officials, gathered at Delaware Seashore State Park to light the first of 11 towers in Delaware. Now, an evening drive on the Charles W. Cullen Bridge will feature a 64-foot blue tower in the skyline.
While the restoration process has been a long one, lighting the tower checks off another box. So far, Tower #3 has received a new cement walkway going around the tower and a glass door for visitors to peer inside and get a glimpse of the tower’s past. Felici says there are plans to place educational kiosks around the tower that will explain the historical nature of the site and more about the restoration plans. Once Tower #3’s restoration is complete, it will be the second, along with Tower #7, that is open to the public.
Fundraising is already underway to restore Tower #1 in Fenwick Island State Park and Tower #2 in North Bethany. However, some environment factors could prevent these two towers from being open to the public, as they may be on dune protected areas. Still, the DSPF wants to preserve the façade of the tower.
Whether a full restoration is possible or just partial, historical preservationists hope there will be a renewed interest in the history of these towers, as well as coastal Delaware’s wartime history.