Welcome to Zwaanendael, which means ‘Swan Valley’. That was the name given to a whaling and trading post established here by 32 Dutchmen in 1631. Sadly all of them were massacred by the Lenni Lenape Indians in 1632 as a result of a dispute over a coat of arms stolen by one of the Indians. The Dutch returned in 1658 when they set up a new trading post called Sekonnessinck and in 1662 a group of Dutch Mennonites settled on Cape Henlopen, to the east of the current town of Lewes. In 1664 the English took control of the area and destroyed the Dutch settlements, although the Dutch briefly regained control in 1673. From 1682 the counties that now form Delaware were leased to William Penn and a town sprang up on the site of Zwaanendael. It was named Lewes after the town in Sussex County (now East Sussex County) in England. Located close to the mouth of Delaware Bay and with a sheltered harbour, Lewes is a significant East Coast port of call and home to a large fleet of fishing boats. It is a small place with a population of just under 3,000 people.
The Zwaanendael Museum was built in 1931 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the first Dutch settlement. The building is based on the Stadhuis (town hall) in Hoorn in the Netherlands and on top of it is a statue of David Pietersen de Vries, leader of the expedition that founded the settlement. The museum exhibits historical artefacts from the area that reflect the early Dutch settlement before the British took over in 1664. The view of the museum that you see here is not available to the naked eye as like most US towns, Lewes has overhead electricity supply and this runs right in front of the building (see the picture of the Cannonball House above for an example). Courtesy of computer technology it is possible to see what this lovely building could look like if the wires were removed.
LV-118, was the last lightship built for the US Lighthouse Service before it was merged into the US Coastguard. She was built in 1938 at East Boothbay in Maine and served at the east end of Long Island Sound before moving to a station near Martha’s Vineyard and finally to a station off Boston. She was retired in 1972, one of the last lightships on the East Coast. In 1973 the US Coastguard donated LV-118 to the Lewes Historical Society. When it arrived in Lewes LV-118 was rechristened Overfalls after the lightships that from 1892 to 1961 marked the entrance to Delaware Bay. It is one of only 17 surviving lightships from a US fleet that at once numbered 179. The Overfalls Maritime Museum Foundation has restored the Overfalls Lightship and it is one of only seven of the US lightships still in existence that is open to the public. Click Tab 2 to see the Captain's Quarters.
This building sheathed in cypress shingles was built around 1765 and is a rare example of an historic Lewes house that still stands on its original site. It was once the home of Gilbert McCracken and David Rowland who were pilots for Delaware Bay and the Delaware River. During the War of 1812 between the US and Britain, the British navy used the tactic of bombarding and raiding key east coast locations. Lewes was at the receiving end of British bombardment on April 6 and 7, 1813. The Cannonball House still has evidence of that bombardment as a British cannonball remains lodged in its foundations. This late colonial era building has been restored by the Lewes Historical Society and now houses their Maritime Museum.
Life Saving Station Boathouse
Back in the days of sail the the waters off Delaware were quite hazardous, so a series of life saving stations were built along the coast. The fourth of these opened at Lewes in 1884. It did not take long for the life saving station to prove its worth. The Great Blizzard of 1888 was a ferocious storm that hit the area, wrecking many ships that had sought refuge behind the Delaware Breakwater. Surfman from Lewes and other stations saved scores of shipwrecked sailors. Wrecks became less common after sail gave way to steam and the station closed with its main building removed to be put to other use elsewhere. The boat house remains on the canal front in Lewes, now used to house an exhibition of the tools and boats used by the Surfmen to rescue shipwreck victims up and down the coast.
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Lewes Beach & Delaware Bay
OK, a beach is a beach, but it is worth including this picture because it reflects the close relationship between Lewes and the sea. Our first visit to Lewes was in March which was not the best time of year to use the beach, but in summer it is very popular.