Dutch traders established the first European settlement in Delaware just inside Cape Henlopen on the banks of the Lewes Creek in 1631 as a whaling station to provide oil for the main Dutch trading post in New Amsterdam (New York). A wooden fort was built north of the present Town and named Zwaanendael, meaning “Valley of the Swans” after the many swans spotted in the area. All went well until a dispute over a metal coat of arms nailed to a pole triggered a dispute with the local Lenni Lenape Indians. One thing led to another and the thirty-two settlers were massacred. Subsequent Dutch explorations led to the conclusion not to re-establish the colony.
Lewes received its present name by William Penn, proprietor of Pennsylvania, sometime immediately after his acquisition of the land from the Duke of York in 1682. According to research, records do not exist to explain why the name Lewes was chosen, although it is believed that members of Penn’s family were from the prominent town in the southeast of England of that name.
Pronounced “Loo-iss” (not “Lose”), the Town is believed to be one of only three places in the world that bear the name; the original English town and the Lewes River in the Yukon Territory, Canada are the others.
Lewes was government seat of Sussex County until 1791 when a more central location was required. As Delaware’s only seaport, Lewes has the dubious distinction of being the State’s target of choice in times of conflict. Captain Kidd and other pirates were frequent visitors during the 1600s; the French attempted to sack the town in 1709 and during the War of 1812 the British bombed Lewes for twenty-two hours. During World War II, with Fort Miles operating at Cape Henlopen, a German U-boat marauding offshore surrendered at Lewes.
Blessed with an excellent harbor, Lewes is home to a large fleet of charter fishing boats and is base of the Delaware Bay and River Pilots Association, whose members guide cargo vessels into the ports of Wilmington and Philadelphia. Our walking of this seafaring town will begin at the distinctive building where the story of “the First Town in the First State” is told...
102 Kings Highway
One of Delaware’s most recognizable buildings, the Zwaanendael Museum is modeled on the old town hall in Hoorn, The Netherlands. It was from this Dutch town that David Pieterssen DeVries sailed in 1632 to lead the colony that had been established a year earlier. When he discovered the original settlement destroyed, he was unable to re-establish the colony. Wilmington architect William Martin designed the structure with stepped gables in 1931 to commemorate the tricentennial of the first ill-fated European settlement in Delaware. Small bricks were specially made to match the originals in Hoorn and the red and white motif carried across the exterior are the official Hoorn town colors. Artifacts in the museum depict the history of Sussex County and Lewes and include exhibits relating to the ill-fated settlement, the British bombardment of Lewes in the War of 1812, the old Cape Henlopen Lighthouse and the shipwrecked H.M.S. DeBraak.
WALK DOWN KINGS HIGHWAY (ZWAANENDAEL WILL BE ON YOUR RIGHT).
Colonel David Hall House
107 Kings Highway
This was the home of Colonel David Hall, a captain in the Delaware regiment during the American Revolution who served with George Washington in engagements at Long Island and White Plains in New York and who was wounded in the Battle of Germantown outside of Philadelphia. After the war Hall entered Delaware politics, serving in the state legislature. He made an unsuccessful run for governor in 1798, won election in 1801, and became the first governor from the nascent Democratic party. The front portion of the home is believed to have been constructed by his grandfather, Nathaniel Hall, around 1730. The rear wing was likely added in the early 1800s; David Hall died in 1817.
120 Kings Highway
This early 1700s wooden house with Dutch-style gambrel roof is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Sussex County. It was built on the Cool Spring property (about six miles southwest down Route 9) of Joshua Fisher, who drafted the first official charts of Delaware Bay. After 1736 the house was in the the Martin family and remained so until 1959 when the dilapidated structure was given to the state. The little house was put on a truck and moved to this location and fixed up for the Town’s 350th anniversary celebration in 1981. Approaching its 300th year, it now does duty as an information center for visitors.
124 Kings Highway
This one-and-a-half story bungalow with a full-width porch and shed dormer was built from a Sears mail-order kit, most likely Modern Home No. 225, in the early 1920s. All the lumber and fittings for a kit house was shipped by rail and assembled on site.
Lewes Presbyterian Church
133 Kings Highway
A congregation was established here in 1692 under the leadership of the Reverend Samuel Davis. The steady flow of immigrants from Scotland and Ireland contributed to its growth. In 1707, the congregation obtained a portion of the present church property on which they erected a small frame house of worship. This building was subsequently replaced by a brick structure in 1727-28. It served the congregation until 1832, when the present church was completed. Also used as a school, the old brick church was demolished in 1871. Over the years, the church has been altered and expanded on several occasions. A Sunday School addition was constructed in 1914, and a multipurpose activities building was completed in 2002. The adjoining cemetery includes the graves of many prominent citizens including Delaware Governors David Hall and Ebe W. Tunnell.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO THE ZWAANENDAEL MUSEUM AND CROSS ROUTE 9 ONTO WEST 3RD STREET.
northwest corner of Third Street and Savannah Road
This building was constructed in 1898 by the Sussex Trust Title and Safe Deposit Company. It was opened in October of that year, and continued to serve as the Lewes branch of the bank until being replaced by a new structure on Second Street in 1911. The property was subsequently sold, and for a time was used as a store. On December 14, 1929, it was donated to the Zwaanendael Women’s Club by Virginia L. Mustard, a Charter Member of the organization. Founded in 1905, the Zwaanendael Club was organized by a group of public-spirited women for the purpose of promoting community improvement through volunteer service. For a number of years the club’s meetings were held in the homes of members, and at various other locations in the town. Their first meeting at this location was on October 7, 1930. It was decided to set up a lending library and offer use of the building to various community organizations. The facility was expanded in the 1930s with the construction of an addition on Third Street.
114 West Third Street
This barn-like structure that dates to 1885 houses a working blacksmith shop and museum.
Old Fire House and Jail
116 West Third Street
Back in 1897 this was the Lewis Fire Station.
202 West Third Street
The 18th century wing was once used as a blacksmith shop and the 19th century wing was turned around from Market Street. A later wing was added and used as a Coast Guard Station.
Original Methodist Meeting House
214 Mulberry Street at the northeast corner of Third Street
This building was first located at Third and Market streets and known as the “Traveling Meeting House.” The first meetings were held in this building in 1791. It was moved to Mulberry and Church streets in 1818 and relocated to its current location in 1870.
TURN LEFT ON PARK AVENUE.
St. George’s AME Church
317 Park Avenue
St. George’s is the oldest black church in the Lewes area, founded by Richard Allen, first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, sometime around 1816. This is the congregation’s second church, built in 1883.
Park Avenue between Third Street and Fourth Street
Shipcarpenter Square was conceived in the early 1980s as a community of historic homes from around Sussex County that would be moved to Lewes and grouped around a grass commons. The first Colonial-style transplants arrived more or less intact, and others were dismantled, moved, and then reassembled. Today most of the exteriors have been replaced in facelifts dsigned to arrest deterioration.
TURN AND RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON PARK AVENUE TO THE LEWES HISTORICAL COMPLEX.
The Lewes Historical Society
110 Shipcarpenter Street
The Society maintains 12 historic properties around town, nine of which are located here in this tree-shaded yard of the Hiram Rodney Burton House. They include:
Thompson Country Store
Absolom Hill and his wife Rachel built the store around 1800 in Thompson’s Corner, now Thompsonville. The store also served as the local post office prior to rural free delivery. Oak timbers display broad ax and adz marks and wooden pegs hold rafters securely at roof peaks.
Rabbit’s Ferry House
This typical of Sussex county farmhouse was originally the Rhodes Vessels and built southwest of Lewes in the unincorporated hamlet of Rabbit’s Ferry 1740s. When James Marvil, the Society’s first President, heard about its impending doom he paid $150 and hauled it here. Like many area abodes hand-hewn cypress shakes harvested from the Great Cypress Swamp in western Sussex County were used to dress the home. The weather-resistant wood never needed to be painted. Rabbit’s Ferry got its name from an enterprising cottontail who was seen crossing a stream on a log. Or maybe by a licentious hare that crashed a community picnic.
This diminutive structure is thought to be a souvenir from the 1740s and used as a dwelling, possibly for slaves. It does have echoes of Swedish houses from the 17th century settlers so may have even earlier origins. It came to this site in 1963.
Old Doctor’s Office
In the 1800s when buildings did not have indoor plumbing and electrical wiring systems they were routinely rolled around town on logs behind an oxen team. Such was the case with the town’s only Greek Revival offering. It was built on Savannah facing Second Street around 1836, moved to Second Street, then shuffled to Chestnut Street near Third Street, then moved again by the Society to Market Street (site of the present Mary Vessels park), and it was moved for the last time to the Historic Complex where it sits today. Along the way it did duty as a doctor’s office and tools of the primitive trade are on display inside.
Public School #178 stands as a representative of the one-room schoolhouses that once dotted Sussex County but little else is known about it, including where it originally was located. As country schools were replaced by more formal school systems in the 1900s the one-room schools were often abandoned or offered for sale to nearby landowners. Sometime after 1937 this school was moved to the farm of Ernest Megee, Sr. in Midway where it stood for three generations as a tool shed. The Society acquired the schoolhouse in 1998 and moved it to the Historic Complex.
Harbeson Railroad Station Privy
this is where passengers of the Junction & Breakwater Railroad took care of business in the 1870s at the Harbeson Railroad Station. The depot served for passengers for almost 60 years and did time as a freight station after that, although presumably with indoor facilities. This structure is a rare example of a back-to-back, double two-seat privy and was preserved on a local farm before being donated to the Historical Society in 2005.
Hiram Burton Rodney House
The oldest section of this house may pre-date 1740; it carries the name of Hiram Rodney Burton, a prominent Lewes physician who later served in the 59th and 60th Congresses of the United States. Burton was also director of the Queen Anne’s Railroad. The Historical Society acquired the property in 1960.
The Burton-Ingram House is considered the finest example of Federal architecture in town, drawing inspiration form the works of Benjamin Latrobe, America’s first professional architect. Living room windows are raised, a tactic implored to impart privacy from traffic on the street - in this case Second Street where the house stood until 1962.
TURN RIGHT ON 2ND STREET.
Governor Ebe Tunnell House
236 Second Street
Ebe Tunnell was born in Sussex County on the last day of 1844 and ran his grandfather’s general store in Blackwater, now Ocean View. He migrated to Lewes in 1872 and operated a drug and hardware business. He was a member of the Democratic Party, who served in the Delaware General Assembly and was Governor of Delaware from 1897 to 1901. Ebe Tunnell was one of only two Delaware governors who never married. The Victorian additions made to his house mask a very old core.
Governor Rodney House
231 Second Street
All the properties on Second Street were laid out in 60 x 200-foot lots when Edmund Cantrell surveyed the town in 1672 for the Duke of York. This house was built for Daniel Rodney -- governor of Delaware from 1814-1817 and later a Congressman and United States Senator -- in 1800. The Breakwater Light, later to become the Delaware Pilot, was established on this site.
223 Second Street
This 1875 Victorian house tapped the then-popular Second Empire style and features a mansard roof with pedimented dormers, sheathed in shingles.
Ryves Holt House
218 Second Street
This house bills itself as the “Oldest House in Delaware” - its building date having been guessed as 1665 through the technique of dendrochronology, a method of analyzing growth rings of woody plants by extracting borings from timbers in a building. Others argue that its style indicates it could not have been built before about 1685. Either way it is a very rare example of a pre-1700s house crafted of perishable wood found anywhere in the United States. Of its many owners the name that has attached itself to the building is Ryves Holt, who arrived in Lewes at the age of 25 in 1721 and purchased the property two years later. Holt became Naval Officer of the Port of Lewes and High Sheriff of Sussex County, eventually serving as Chief Justice of the Three Lower Counties on the Delaware River and Bay from 1745 until his death.
The John Penrose Virden House
217 Second Street
John Penrose Virden, a Delaware River pilot, built this rambling home in 1888. He was a co-founder and the first president of the Pilots Association. Virden died in 1934 and is buried across the street in St. Peters Cemetery.
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church
Second & Market streets
Services on this site date to 1707 and the appointment of Reverend William Black. He arrived in Lewes on July 26, 1708 but was gone the following year, moving to Virginia after the town was plundered by French ships. This 1858 Gothic Revival church is the third structure on the site, replacing a frame church built in 1808. The cornerstone was laid by Reverend Alfred Lee, the first bishop of Delaware. The 90-foot needle steeple is an 1870 addition. The cemetery has some of the oldest tombstones in Delaware; its oldest resident being Margaret Huling who died in 1707 at the age of 76.
The New Devon Inn
142 Second Street
This commercial structure was built in 1926 by the Lewes Hotel Company and named the Caesar Rodney Hotel, for the 18th-century Delaware patriot and future resident of the back of the Delaware quarter. At the time Lewes had no year-round hostelry for travelers, the only previous such accommodations, the Hotel Rodney on Savannah Street having burned the year before. The declining property had become a residence hotel with efficiency apartments and a pool hall in the basement when it was purchased in the late 1980s for $387,000. The new owners gutted the three-story building and removed everything but the main staircase and the pine floors in the guest rooms to convert it to a boutique inn.
134 Second Street
In 1930 this concrete block Neoclassical facade was attached to a substantially smaller brick building, looking much like a movie set.
TURN LEFT ON BANK STREET.
The Cannonball House
118 Front Street on the northwest corner of Bank Street
To long-time Lewes residents the Captain David Rowland House, built before the American Revolution around 1765, is most notable as being that rare centuries-old town resident that has never been moved from its original location. To visitors it is best known as the Cannonball House where a cannon ball fired from a British frigate during a two-day bombardment in April 1813 lodged in the foundation. For many years this was the home of generations of river and bay pilots. The Cannonball House has served as a Maritime Museum since the 1970s and is home to nearly 375 years of nautical history.
TURN RIGHT ON FRONT STREET.
119 Front Street
This building is the site of the original Maritime Exchange, used from 1884-1928. Telescopes were perched in the look-out towers on top of the building to identify ships. The owners were then contacted by telegraph.
Lewes Post Office
116 Front Street
This Neoclassical United States post office opened for business in 1915.
1812 Memorial Park
The 1812 Memorial Park was developed to commemorate the defense of Lewes against a two-day bombardment by the British fleet during the War of 1812. In March of 1813, the Royal Navy established a blockade of the Delaware Bay and River. The British squadron, under the command of Commodore John P. Beresford, RN, took up stations off Lewes and the Delaware Capes, and began to conduct raids along the coast in and effort to disrupt maritime commerce and shipping. Many small actions resulted with numerous vessels being captured and destroyed. On this location was one of two fortifications that were built to protect the town of Lewes. These earthworks mounted several cannon, and were manned by militia under the command of Colonel Samuel Boyer Davis. After Delaware authorities refused a demand to provide supplies, the British ships (a 74-gun frigate, the Poictiers, one ship of the line, the Belvidere, and a schooner )took up bombardment positions off the town. From April 6th into the 7th, Lewes was shelled for twenty-two hours, with the British firing as many as 800 projectiles into the town. This was the first use of the Congreve rocket against the Americans during the War of 1812. Because so many trees obstructed the view of the attackers, very few cannon shots actually struck property and the final damage was very little. One shot did hit the door of Caleb Rodney’s store, another struck the Rowland House on Front Street, and another hit the McIlvaine home in Gills Neck. But the only casualties were a chicken that was killed and a pig whose leg was broken. The door from the Rodney store can be seen in the Zwaanendael Museum and a wooden marker shows where the Cannonball House was struck. Many cannon balls from the attack were collected by local residents and preserved to this day.
The creek that runs through town was known as Bloemart’s Kill (after a Dutch political figure of the 1600s), the Whorekill, and eventually established itself as Lewes Creek until that body of water was widened, lengthened and deepened into the modern day Lewes & Rehoboth Canal. That man-made waterway connecting Rehoboth Bay and Delaware Bay was authorized by the U.S. River and Harbor Act of 1912. Digging began on November 5, 1913 and the first boat passed through on October 8, 1916. Initially, the canal was envisioned as a means of access to the sea for farmers and saw mills along the Indian River and Bay. Today, this feeder route to the Inter-Coastal Waterway is used by commercial and pleasure boats and provides access for pilot boats to guide ocean-going vessels up the Delaware Bay to the major ports of Wilmington and Philadelphia. The current drawbridge over the canal dates to 1983.
CROSS SAVANNAH ROAD ONTO GILLS NECK ROAD.
124 Gills Neck Road
The Marvil House was built around 1760 by Capt. Richard Howard, a Delaware Bay and River pilot. Early bay pilots watched for ships in the Delaware Bay from the home’s upper floors.
RETURN TO SAVANNAH ROAD AND TURN LEFT. TURN RIGHT ON SECOND STREET.
103 Second Street
This 1790 building was the home of Henry F. Rodney. His daughter, Lydia, conducted a small private school for girls in a building on the corner lot next door. The home is now used as a store.
108 Second Street
This commercial building with ornate Italianate brackets under overhanging eaves joined theSecond Street landscape around 1920.
RETURN TO SAVANNAH ROAD AND TURN RIGHT.
northwest corner of Savannah Road and Second Street
The Trader family built this extensive Queen Anne-styled residence in 1894 and spent many decades here. The latest in a string of businesses has been the Buttery, who moved to the historic building in 1999. During the renovation to a dining establishment much of the building’s interior features and colorful stained glass windows were able to be saved.
Captain Charles W. Johnston House
210 Savannah Road
This eye-catching Victorian was built in 1899 for Captain Charles W. Johnston, who was acknowledged from Maine to Florida as the best deep sea diver and marine salvager in the business. “Diver” Johnston, 52 years of age at the time, had more than 150 explored wrecks on his salvage resume. He came to Lewes from Prince Edward Island, Canada in 1879 to lead the search for the sunken H.M.S. DeBraak. The house was actually constructed by William H. Virden, a partner of Johnson’s, who used only sturdy hand hewn timbers sturdy enough to support the heavy slate roof. It was sold in 1939 to Otis H. Smith, a New Jersey transplant who founded the Fish Products company, the first and largest Menhaden processing operation in the country. Smith was elected mayor of Lewes in 1950 and went on to serve nine consecutive two-year terms. After years of neglect the house has recently been revived as a commercial property.
YOU HAVE NOW RETURNED TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT THE ZWAANENDAEL MUSEUM.