Where Nowhere Is
The waterman’s ways may be yielding to those of newcomers, but even they don’t want things to change too much—at least not for now.
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“It was beautiful,” says Burke, drawing out the sentence in a baritone as deep as Delaware Bay. “It was wild. It was nowhere, really.”
To be sure, the place still feels a bit like nowhere, an archetypal boondocks surrounded by marsh. That area is Slaughter Beach, but one town in a string that stretches from Lewes to Port Mahon. With the others—Broadkill Beach to the south, the fishing hamlets of South Bowers and Bowers beaches, Little Creek and Leipsic to the north—it maintains a rustic feel. No town’s population crests the low hundreds. Houses number in only the dozens.
“It was no man’s land. In some ways it still is, really,” says Burke, 66. “Places like Slaughter Beach and Broadkill, they were just little fishing villages, places where people built cottages they used in the summertime. They hunted muskrats. They tracked the dirt in and out of their houses—built most of them on rocks. Nobody gave a damn if the bay rose up and the water was all around them. It was expected, in fact.”
But these places are changing. And the transformation is bittersweet for Burke, as it is for so many people who have a history here. Having spent many years as a young man happily wandering the no man’s land, Burke has another connection to the region. His wife’s grandfather was one of the developers of Broadkill Beach, which at the time of its settlement in the late 19th century, was nothing more than a seven-mile stretch of uninhabited coast.
In addition to his pedigree by marriage, Burke is a former owner of the Mispillion Lighthouse. Built in Slaughter Beach in 1831, the light’s 65-foot tower once overlooked the Mispillion River and Cedar Creek. It was the only wooden frame lighthouse still standing in the state when Burke and his wife purchased it in 2000. Two years later the structure was severely damaged by lightning. It was later sold and moved to Lewes, the town Burke now calls home.
Another piece of the place disappeared—and another person.
“There are some spots down here that still feel the same,” says Burke. “But most of it has more or less changed completely. It’s happening everywhere.”
Burke’s nostalgia—for the wilderness, the once flourishing fishing industry, the few aging locals who recall simpler times—is not so sad as his statements might imply. Burke isn’t one to suffer wistfulness. This transformation is just another cog in the wheel of time’s unstoppable turning. He just wishes that a bit of it could remain the way it was.
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