Delaware Seashore lookout tower being restored

Delaware Seashore State Park will have its own fully restored, World War II watch tower in 2021.

Eleven lookout posts were constructed on the southern Delaware coast in the 1940s, with five in today’s Cape Henlopen State Park. During World War II, the Fort Miles towers were important assets, protecting the approaches to ports along the Delaware Bay. Observers used them to triangulate the position of enemy ships and watch the minefield at the mouth of the bay. Watch towers further north, built on steel supports, were to be used for directing weapons at Fort Dupont, Fort Delaware and Fort Mott in New Jersey.

The Fort Miles Historical Association, Delaware Seashore Preservation Foundation and the Division of Parks and Recreation are collaborating to rehabilitate Artillery Fire Control Tower 3.

According to Fort Miles Historical Association President and founder Gary Wray, Delaware is the only state that still has all its WWII-era artillery towers. That’s because, while others were steel, these were built with one-foot-thick reinforced concrete.

“There was a steel shortage, and we couldn’t get the steel. Concrete was three times more expensive, but they knew we were going to war,” he said. “It was a fortunate decision for us … they won’t rust.”

Two are in use today, both brought back to life in the 1980s. Tower 9, on The Point at Cape Henlopen, was fully renovated and is a radar tower. Tower 7 at Cape Henlopen was outfitted with a spiral staircase and is open to visitors.

Tower 3 was picked for restoration due to its distance from Cape Henlopen, and for its proximity to the Indian River Lifesaving Station, a bathhouse and parking. 

“We wanted our friends at the southern end of the beach to go up into the tower,” Wray said. “People coming up from Ocean City don’t know anything about Delaware history, so we want to make it attractive, we want people to see it.”

The Fort Miles Historical Association has about 400 members. Last year, they received one of the Governor’s Outstanding Volunteer Awards.

Volunteers take care of certain functions, with DNREC supervising the engineering and contractors.

 “Between 40 and 60 of us are skilled craftsman, just about anything from architecture to electricity. You name it, we got the team to do it,” Wray said. “We are saving the state hundreds of thousands in costs.”

Restoration means removing sand from the entryway, making it handicap-accessible, reinstalling windows and repairing damaged concrete. Wray said the cost is about $1 million.

The final phase, what Wray called “the big ticket,” is installing a spiral staircase so visitors can climb to the top and look over the Atlantic. The staircase alone costs about $350,000.

So far about $665,000 has been raised. The Fort Miles Historical Association and Delaware Seashore Preservation Foundation are “aggressively” working toward raising the remainder.

There are no plans to fully restore the other towers. There are plans, however, to address the exterior of Tower 1, in Fenwick Island, and Tower 2, in north Bethany Beach.

“Because of their locations in the dune areas with no parking access, it would be impossible to do the level of interior restoration [needed] in order to open those to the general public,” said Delaware Seashore Preservation Foundation’s Ernie Felici.

For more, visit restorethetower.org.