America’s most endangered lighthouse may have met its final fate during a mid-morning thunderstorm early in May when a bolt of lightning hit the top of the lighthouse and fire quickly moved down the walls of the dilapidated old structure.
Over the last 73 years, since being decommissioned, the Mispillion Lighthouse has never lacked for challenges, but this may have been its final challenge. Deemed obsolete in 1929, the light unknowingly embarked on an odyssey few could have ever imagined. However, despite enduring decades of abuse from the destructive elements sweeping over the Delaware Bay and random acts of vandalism to its beautiful “stick-gothic” style construction, the Mispillion Lighthouse continued to hold its ground at the mouth of the Mispillion River - though admittedly ever so tenuous.
The 1990s brought yet another challenge to the forefront - one many feared would spell certain doom for this elegant sentinel. The lighthouse, being held in private ownership, was ensnared in an ugly and cumbersome bankruptcy case. Lighthouse enthusiasts visiting the light at Slaughter Beach gazed heartbroken at the horrifying condition of the structure, all the while voicing much frustration over the fact that nothing could be done to sidestep the legal issues entrapping the lighthouse from being saved. Many others wondered aloud - might this be their last opportunity to admire one of Delaware’s treasured beacons now sitting on the edge of oblivion?
Then in April 2001, hope finally burned bright for the Mispillion Lighthouse and her concerned friends. A Georgetown, Delaware, attorney by the name of Merritt “Sam” Burke, III announced to a crowd of over 80 people attending a meeting on behalf of the lighthouse, that he was working to purchase the lighthouse property and was willing to work with a non-profit organization for the restoration and preservation of the neglected sentinel. The unbridled enthusiasm exuding from the crowd gave birth to what would eventually become a new group by the name of the Keepers of Mispillion Light in June 2001. The organization, armed with a good-faith commitment from Mr. Burke, subsequently elected a very talented and passionate Board of Directors who set their sights on the daunting task at hand.
For the remainder of 2001, the Keepers of Mispillion Lighthouse took their message to the streets, while continuing to build a solid infrastructure capable of saving the lighthouse once the sale of the property was consummated. In January 2002, the joyous word came forth that indeed, the lighthouse was now the property of Mr. Burke - spirits were at an all-time high. However, lurking ever so quietly behind the scenes was the destructive force of politics. At the same time Mr. Burke was working to acquire the lighthouse property, he also was finalizing the purchase of a nearby historic WWII fort. Though two totally different real estate transactions, the bitter fight incurred by Mr. Burke with local authorities over proposed zoning changes at the fort property did not bode well for the future of the Keepers of Mispillion Light, who chose not to offer support for Mr. Burke’s plans at the fort during a public hearing. The town of Slaughter Beach, where the Mispillion Lighthouse resides, was vehemently opposed to Mr. Burke’s business plans for the fort property, thus creating many ill feelings on both sides.
On April 18, 2002, the Keepers of Mispillion Light received official notice from Mr. Burke that the organization was no longer going to receive a lease on the lighthouse. In his letter, Mr. Burke cited a “lack of communication” between the efforts of the Keepers of Mispillion Light and his family’s interest in the affairs of the lighthouse as the reasoning behind his change of plans.
Mr. Burke indicated that a new Mispillion Lighthouse Trust was to be established with the intent to save a lighthouse still caught in the middle of seemingly endless waves of confusion, disappointment and frustration. In defense of Mr. Burke, one can only assume his intentions for the lighthouse were sincere; however, the results of the lightning bolt from the sky placed the Mispillion Lighthouse quite possibly at the point of no return.
This story appeared in the
June 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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