History by the Sea
With the settlement of Lewes only a few years after Jamestown, Virginia, Sussex County history is truly a reflection of America’s roots. Thankfully, there are many distinctive museums to help tell the region’s story. Following are some of the best.
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Second Street, Lewes, 645-7670
This 1785 gem of Federal architecture is nationally renowned for its lavish features. Filled with a portion of Burton heiress Leah Burton Paynter’s estate, visitors will find works of art by Ethel Pennewill Brown Leach, Jacob Eichholtz and Betty Harrington MacDonald. Also displayed are fine examples of Chippendale and Rittenhouse furnishings. It’s reported that the old house was once called “Bluebeard” because one of the later inhabitants had blue skin due to mercury intake. But there’s nothing off color about this exhibit.
Cannonball House and Maritime Museum
118 Front St., Lewes, 645-7670
Operated by the Lewes Historical Society, the Cannonball House still bears the scars of British assaults during the War of 1812—a hole in the foundation caused by a cannonball fired from a ship offshore. Within the historic home of 19th-century river pilots Gilbert McCracken and David Rowland, you can view artifacts from area lighthouses, river pilot homes and lifesaving stations, as well as historic documents from Delaware’s long relationship with the sea. It’s one of several houses the historical society bought and renovated to keep the city’s history alive.
DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum
708 Ocean Highway, Fenwick Island, 539-9366
Dale Clifton Jr. started shipwreck salvaging after he found his first English half penny on a local beach. Since then he’s amassed thousands of artifacts from shipwrecks and colonial sites both locally and around the world. More than 11 years ago he opened the DiscoverSea museum above, of all places, a sea shell shop in Fenwick Island. For a donation, visitors can see 30 years’ worth of antiques and treasures Clifton has found, including coins, bottles, jewelry, dishware and even objects from the Titanic. It provides a fantastic cross-section of commerce in coastal Delaware.
Fenwick Island Lighthouse
Off Del. 54, Fenwick Island, 436-810
Since 1858 this lighthouse has warned ships at sea away from the treacherous Fenwick shoals five miles offshore. Except for a brief time from 1978 to 1981, it has been lit almost continuously. With its original French Fresnel optic in place, it’s one of the few Delaware lighthouses open to the public, though climbing the lighthouse is prohibited. It also marks the line between Maryland and Delaware. Visitors can view a mini-museum at the base and enjoy browsing through the gift shop.
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