History of Lewes, DE

History Buffs Rejoice!

With a history dating back to 1631, it is not surprising to find many homes in Lewes of both historical and architectural interest. Only a small number of them are listed here. A map and visitors guide which lists many other sites of interest with a small description is available free of charge at many local businesses, museums, and at the Chamber of Commerce information center. For more in-depth information, the History of Lewes Delaware and Vicinity, published by the Colonel David Hall Chapter, DAR, is a good reference book. It is available for a minimal charge in the gift shop at the Zwaanendael Museum. Another booklet, Victorian Lewes and Its Architecture, is available at the Lewes Historical Society and at the Chamber office.  

Please respect the privacy of the families who live in our old homes, many of which are open during the Annual Christmas House Tour, held the first Saturday in December.

Zwaanendael Museum

Savannah Road & Kings Highway

Built in 193 1, this adaptation of the old Stadhuis (City Hall) in Hoorn, the Netherlands, houses permanent and changing displays and exhibits, including the Cape Henlopen Story, the H.M.S. DeBraak, and the material culture of the surrounding area.

The Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday from 1:30 P.M. to 4:30 p.m. No admission is charged, donations are accepted.

 

Fisher-Martin House

Located behind the Zwaanendael Museum at intersection of Kings Highway and Savannah Road

Circa 1730, this charming gambrel-roofed house was moved from the country at Cool Spring in 1980 as part of the celebration of the 350th anniversary of the first European settlement on Delaware soil. Just when it was built and by whom is uncertain. The tract at Cool Spring was owned in 1695 by Thomas Fisher, a wealthy merchant, and was left to his son Joshua who became famous for charting the Delaware Bay. It was sold in 1736 to Rev. James Martin, a minister of Cool Spring, Indian River, and Lewes Presbyterian churches. It stayed in the Martin family for over two hundred years. The building is used as a focal point for community activities and exhibits. The Lewes Chamber of Commerce information center is located in the house.

Public Restrooms are located behind the Fisher-Martin House in Zwaanendael Park.

 

Colonel David Hall House

107 Kings Highway

This early 18th century cypress-shingled house is mentioned in a 1734 will of Nathaniel Hall, but is named after his more famous grandson, Colonel David Hall - lawyer, revolutionary soldier and judge - who was elected the 15th Governor of Delaware in 1802. The interior of the house contains original woodwork, paneling and plaster ornamentation. The entire first floor and old brick cellar of the Hall House are now open as a gift shop featuring 18th & 19th century antique furniture in period-room settings, traditional American crafts, and collectibles.

Colonel Hall, who commanded the celebrated "Delaware Line" of the Continentals during the Revolutionary War at Valley Forge, is buried in the Lewes Presbyterian Church yard.

Lewes City Hall

East Third Street

Built in 1961, this colonial-style building houses offices of the City of Lewes, the Board of Public Works and the Lewes Police Department. The fireplace, in the Council Room, is made of stone from the Henlopen Lighthouse which fell on April 13,1926.

 

Lewes Presbyterian Church

Kings Highway

The Lewes Presbyterian Church was founded in 1682, and the present building was dedicated in 1832. It replaced two previous buildings on the same site, one built in 1707 and the other, a brick edifice, begun in 1727.

A beautiful Communion Service was presented to the Church about 1851 by Colonel Samuel Boyer Davis, Lewes-born commander of the troops at Lewes during the bombardment of the town in 1813.

There are many interesting tombs in the churchyard, including those of two Delaware governors, Colonel David Hall and Ebe W Tunnell.

Saint Peter's Episcopal Church

Second and Market Streets

The present building, consecrated in 1858 and restored to its original beauty in 1948, was preceded by two prior structures, the first one having been begun before February 14, 1707. A congregation of the Church of England existed in Lewes prior to 1681. There are many interesting stones in the churchyard, the oldest being that of Margaret Huling, born 1631. Four governors of Delaware are buried here.

The bronze tablet on the outside of the brick wall calls attention to the site of the Old Court House, erected when Lewes was the County Seat of Sussex.

Ryves Holt House c. 1665

Second and Mulberry Streets

This dignified shingled house is believed to be the oldest house in the state. It is known to have been standing on its present site in l685 and has recently been dated at 1665 through the analysis of borings taken from the wood used in the structure. Once a colonial inn, this is the house to which Ryves Holt came in 1721 when he arrived at "Port Lewes" Holt (1696-1763) became the Naval Officer of the Port and was also many times High Sheriff of Sussex County. With other appointments and offices to his credit, he was made the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in The Three Lower Counties on the Delaware in 1745 and served in this capacity until his death.

Commodore Jacob Jones also lived in the house. Following the death of his mother, his father married a daughter of Ryves Holt. Commodore Jones won acclaim when his ship WASP captured the more heavily armed British warship Frolic during the war of 1812.

Sites 8-15 are administered by the Lewes Historical Society. Information on building openings, tours and special events held at the complex may be obtained by phoning (302) 645-7670

Burton-Ingram House

Shipcarpenter and Third Street (In the Historic Complex)

Moved from Second Street in 1962 by the Lewes Historical Society, the main section of this house is constructed of hand-hewn timbers and cypress shingles. It contains an interesting stairway and interior woodwork as well as fine interior and exterior moldings. The cellar walls are of sailing ballast stones and brick. A section from a similar dwelling was brought from Milton to replace an original wing destroyed by fire in 1922. The Leah Burton Paynter bequest of 1968 enabled the Society to complete the restoration.

Rabbit's Ferry House - Visitor Center

Third Street (In the Historic Complex)

This house was moved from the Rabbit's Ferry area of rural Lewes in 1967 and restored by the Lewes Historical Society. The small part is an early eighteenth century one-room farmhouse with a sleeping loft, and contains original cypress shingles and brick nogging in walls, woodwork and fireplace paneling. The larger portion, added in the middle of the eighteenth century, boasts doors, chair rail, window and door trim, mantle and paneling that are all original and intact. Tour tickets are available at Rabbit's Ferry House.

Thompson Country Store

Third Street (In the Historic Complex)

Built in Thompsonville, Delaware, about 1800, this store was operated continuously by the Thompson family from 1888 to 1962. Given to the Lewes Historical Society bv Harvey Thompson, it was moved, repaired and reopened bv the Society in 1963. The store has many of its original appointments and has remained essentially the same as when it served its original purpose on a full-time basis. The Ellegood House (behind the Country Store) contains a gift shop with souvenirs and hand-crafted, country-type items, which are sold to benefit the Lewes Historical Society.

Early Plank House

Behind the Thompson Country Store (In the Historic complex)

This small building, originally located in the rear of the Orton property on Pilottown Road, was moved in 1963 to its present site. Experts hold construction to be of early Swedish type and while no construction date has been agreed upon, it is one of the area's earliest buildings. The wood floor and hand-carved clothes pegs point to its use as a dwelling. It has been restored and finished as an early settler's cabin.

The Doctor's Office

Behind the Early Plank House (In the Historic Complex)

This handsome Greek Revival structure was built about 1850 by Dr. David Hall on Savannah Road across from Second Street. Dr. Hall practiced medicine until just before 1900 when he sold the building to Dr.W P Orr, Jr., who moved it to the Northeast side of Second Street and used it until 1904. The next occupant was Joseph Shek who operated his tailor shop there. In 1945 it became Clifton's Newsstand and survived the Lewes Fire of 1971.

The Cliftons donated the building to the Lewes Historical Society. It has been restored and outfitted as a museum showing a doctor's office at the turn of the century.

The Burton House

Second Street & Shipcarpenter Square (In the Historic Complex)

The Hiram R. Burton House has an 18th century kitchen wing which adjoins a larger section constructed at a later date. Furnishings were received from the private collection of John Farrace. This was the home of Dr Hiram Rodney Burton, Lewes physician, President of the Medical Society of Delaware, and a Queen Anne's Railroad Director, who served two terms in Congress upon his election in 1904.

This historical building contains a Reading Room for those interested in reading Delaware history.

Cannonball House Marine Museum

Front and Bank Streets

Erected prior to 1797, the building is sheathed with cypress shingles and was the home of David Rowland. It is known as the Cannonball House because it was struck by a cannonball in the War of 1812 during the bombardment of Lewes by the British on April 6-7, 1813. The building has been restored by the Lewes Historical Society and contains the Marine Museum, which houses an ever-increasing number of nautical exhibits. The garden was planned and landscaped by the Sussex Gardeners.

The Lightship Overfalls

Pilottown Road (On Canal Front)

The Lewes Historical Society accepted from the U. S. Coast Guard in 1973 one of the last lightships which functioned on the East Coast. It stood for years off Boston and upon being brought to Lewes was rechristened Overfalls for the lightships which from 1892 to 1961 marked the entrance to the Delaware Bay. The ship's move to Lewes, its preparation for a museum role, and its relocation to a permanent berth made available by the city in 1975, have all been major undertakings overseen by the Lewes Historical Society and later by the Overfalls Maritime Museum Foundation (OMMF). OMMF is now working to preserve and restore the ship so this national treasure (one of only 17 surviving lightships of a U.S. fleet that at one time numbered 179) will be available for future generations.

1812 Memorial Park

Front Street (Opposite the Post Office)

This was a defense battery during the War of 1812 and the site is marked by a granite monument placed by the National Society, U.S. Daughters of 1812. Four large guns on the upper lumps were contributed by the government. Between them is a small gun believed taken from a pirate vessel abandoned in the creek. A three- inch naval gun on the lower terrace, used during World War 1, was placed by the American Legion in 1930.

Maull House

Pilottown Road

Owned and restored by the Colonel David Hall Chapter, DAR, this historic house is an early type of Dutch house built about 1739. According to legend, it is here that Jerome Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, and his bride Betsy, found refuge on a stormy night in 1803 when their ship had put into Lewes harbor for repairs. Betsy is remembered locally for refusing to be seated at a bountiful roast goose dinner until her silver candlesticks had been brought from the disabled ship.

Fisher's Paradise

624 Pilottown Road (Private home)

Major Henry Fisher, the pilot patriot, built Fisher's Paradise between 1780 and 1790. Fisher, a fervent patriot, figures prominently in Lewes'colorful history. At the request of the postwardens of Philadelphia, he selected the site for the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse. It was Major Fisher who informed the Continental Congress and General George Washington that Lord Howe's fleet had been sighted off Cape Henlopen and was headed toward the Chesapeake. He was empowered by Congress to raise a company of 100 men for the defense of the Cape and the river country; he armed them at his own expense. Fisher's daughter sold the house to Colonel Samuel Boyer Davis who lived there when he commanded the town's defense in the War of 1812.

deVries Monument and Fort Site

Pilottown Road

In 1631 on this site, 28 Dutch settlers under the direction of deVries established the whaling colony of Zwaanendael and erected a fort. The following spring, Indians burned the stockade and massacred the settlers. Although the ill-fated settlement endured only briefly, its existence was significant in Delaware's becoming a separate State. The Monument honoring the significance of the settlement was erected in the center of what was once the North bastion of the fort (apparently by coincidence). In 1964 members of the Sussex Society of Archaeology and History found the postmold patterns of the South bastion as sketched by deVries. This discovery culminated several years of effort to determine the exact location of the fort.

The Rodney House

103 Second Street

Probably the oldest building remaining in the first block of Second Street, it stood for many years as a near neighbor to the Burton-Ingram House which was relocated in 1962 to the Historic Complex. The structure and an adjoining building at the corner formed the store and residence of the family of Henry Fisher Rodney (I 800-1869). A daughter, Miss Lydia, conducted a private school for children in the building before she and others of her family left Lewes in 1869 to establish an Episcopal girls' school in Portland, Oregon. Many features of the building attest to its age and durability - from the cellar up to the attic.

Old Fire House

West Third and Chestnut Streets

The former Lewes Fire Station and jail is located at the corner of West Third and Chestnut Streets. The property was conveyed to the Commissioners of Lewes in 1897, and the principal building was erected at that time, with the north side being added later. The structure served as the Lewes Firehouse and Lock-up (jail) until the Fire Company moved to its present location on Savannah Road c. 1920.

The building at one time served as the Lewes Town office, a school house, a Boy Scout Center, and a meeting hall for the Lewes Jaycees. During World War II, the building housed prisoners of war.  

 

The Impact of the War of 1812 to Historic Lewes

Often called our “forgotten war” the War of 1812 is also considered our second war for independence.  While the American Revolution granted America its political independence, the War of 1812 secured America’s commercial independence and helped propel the nation’s westward expansion.  The Mid-Atlantic region was an important theater of the war and the Delmarva peninsula was at the epicenter of events along the Atlantic coast.  With access to Washington, D.C. and Baltimore at the southern end of peninsula and access to Philadelphia here at Lewes, our region saw a tremendous amount of naval activity and troop movement during the conflict.  With Philadelphia still at that time the most populous and most economically important city in the country, the Delaware River and Bay was a critical asset the British sought desperately to control. Vital economic activity in Philadelphia coupled with the then-newly established DuPont powder mills on the Brandywine River near Wilmington, Del., only added to the Delaware’s strategic importance.  With its commanding strategic position at the mouth of the Delaware Bay inside Cape Henlopen, Lewes was destined to play an important role in the defense of the river and bay during the conflict. In March 1813, nearly a year after the U.S. Congress declared war, a small flotilla of British naval ships sailed from the Chesapeake to the mouth of Delaware Bay, hoping to cut off access to the Delaware River ports and choke the American economy to a point where surrender might occur.  Arriving off Cape Henlopen, the British would find a small battery at the foot of Pilottown Road, west of Lewes (near the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment) that previously had seen duty during the Revolution and a hastily constructed fort at the center of town constructed of “rough logs and brush, filled in with earth, sand, and gravel, each having… a log watch house” and running along the south side of what was then known as Lewes Creek. While British forces were at anchor, a small party was sent ashore to seek fresh provisions for the ships.  Their efforts were rebuked by the volunteer and state militia that had begun to assemble at Lewes as well as federal troops whose presence at Lewes was a welcome sight for the local population.  After several other thwarted attempts, the British commander, Commodore John P. Beresford, sent a letter to “the first magistrate at Lewistown.”’ It read: “As soon as you read this, I must request you will send twenty live bullocks, with a proportionate quantity of vegetables and hay, to the Poitiers (one of the British ships comprising the blockade), for the use of His British Majesty’s squadron, now at this anchorage, which shall be immediately paid for at Philadelphia prices.  If you refuse this request, I shall be under the necessity of destroying your town.”  This letter ultimately ended up in the hand of Governor David Haslet who had made his way from Dover to Lewes upon news of the escalating situation.  Haslet’s lengthy reply concluded, “a compliance [with Beresford’s request] would be an immediate violation of the laws of my country and eternal stigma on the nation of which I am citizen; a compliance therefore cannot be acceded to.”  Needless to say, the beef and hay never made it to the British squadron.  This line of communication stayed open for a several more days with Beresford becoming increasingly agitated at the ornery Americans here at Lewes.  Finally, on April 6, Beresford lost his patience and an initial firing of 32-pounders rained down on Lewes. During a lull in the bombardment, Beresford sent a letter to Lewes received by Col. Samuel Boyer Davis – a Lewes native whose father died aboard a British prison ship during the American Revolution, and who, upon hearing about the British ships off Cape Henlopen, returned to defend his hometown – noting his grief “for the distress the women and children are reduced to by your conduct, and earnestly desire they be instantly removed.”  Davis gallantly responded he had already taken care of the ladies. Ultimately, damage was done to both sides during the bombardment which lasted about 22 hours over the course of April 6 & 7, 1813. Cannonballs and rockets lit up the sky; many missed their marks, several, however, did not and damage can still be seen today at the famous Cannonball House where a cracked foundation bears testimony to those dramatic events.  Despite being short supplied, the American forces at Lewes were able to gather enemy cannonballs and effectively reply fire at the British squadron, causing at least one gunboat to catch fire and “retreat to the Jersey Cape.”  The rockets fired at Lewes those days were the Congreve rocket – the first use of that device in war – and would provide the “rockets’ red glare” that so-inspired Francis Scott Key the following year in Baltimore.  The episode at Lewes was national news, appearing in newspapers up and down the country. Following the bombardment, the fort stood and defended Lewes and lower Delaware Bay for the next two years until news of Jackson’s victory at New Orleans reached Lewes on March 15, 1815.  While the British navy did advance a little further up Delaware Bay, George Read Jr.’s account that “the affair at Lewes will increase their caution” proved correct. Ultimately, the forts were abandoned and dismantled but the memory of April 1813 would linger; many 19th century travelers who visited Lewes remarked how old timers would sit on their porches and retell how tiny Lewes, Delaware had withstood the mighty British navy.  Today, 200 years later, we still commemorate and honor the men who defended Lewes, knowing that, in the words of Samuel Boyer Davis, “the honor of the State has not been tarnished.”

To learn more about the War of 1812, please visit www.HistoricLewes.org.

Cape Henlopen State Park

One mile east of Lewes near the Cape May- Lewes Ferry Terminal

The variety of outdoor activities available in the 4,013 acres of sandy peninsula causes it to be one of the area's main attractions for young and old alike. Swimmers, surf fishermen and birders can enjoy long hours spent on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean or at the park's point parking lot. Other recreational activities may be pursued at the tennis courts, basketball courts, hockey and softball fields, nature trafls, and the eighteen-hole disc golf course. Programs and activities for adults and children are offered. Campsites are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. For information, write Cape Henlopen State Park, 42 Cape Henlopen Drive, Lewes, DE 19958, or call (302) 645-8983.

Contact Chamber

Phone 302-645-8073
Toll-Free 877-465-3937

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Chamber Hours of Operation

Year Round
M-F 10am - 4pm
Memorial Day thru Sept. 30th
Saturday 9am - 3pm
Sunday 10am - 2pm