In recent weeks we’ve written about some of the most interesting places in historic Lewes, which continues to be one of Delaware’s most desirable places to live and visit. Yet the town you see today could have been very different, if not for some remarkable feats by its residents and business leaders.
Three feats, to be exact. In this post and the two that follow I’m going to open the history book to show you how visionary thinking and civic actions have protected historic resources and paved the way to prosperity for years to come.
Point #1: Stepping away from a dangerous path
If you were around in 1981, you know Lewes was in trouble. The menhaden fish processing plant that had once employed hundreds of local residents was long gone, and there was a 50 percent vacancy rate among the businesses downtown. Those two factors, combined with a nationwide recession, created fertile ground for a potentially devastating shift to an industrial future driven by coal.
Tons and tons of it, in fact, due to a plan by a developer to transform the area that’s now known as Cape Shores near the entrance to Cape Henlopen State Park into a port that would receive between 3 and 6.7 million tons of coal destined for barges just off the Lewes coast every year. And if you’re wondering how it would have gotten there, just imagine the railroad tracks that led past beautiful old historic homes carrying up to 200 railroad cars filled with coal every day.
Looking at the Lewes we know today you might wonder how anyone could have applauded the proposal. Yet the promise of many jobs that would have paid relatively well and required little training was a powerful lure.
Longtime locals weighed in . . .
It also almost happened, thanks to a city council that was evenly divided, with one swing vote in question. One of the main forces that headed it off was Dale Parsons, a longtime Lewes resident who owned the marina where the Wheelhouse is located now. As a successful business owner with friends far and wide, he gained a lot of attention when he asserted “I could just see it messing every damn thing up . . . because we got plenty of wind that’s gonna’ blow the dust everywhere and that if you don’t like that you’ll have to take your house somewhere else.”
That sentiment was shared by Cliff Diver, another successful business person who was also the president of the Lewes Chamber of Commerce at the time. In an interview about the issue for Delaware Beach Life magazine last year, he recalled:
“I had a friend in Morehead City, N.C., where there was another coal port, so I saw what Lewes would become. One day of breathing in coal dust won’t kill you, but many days of coal dust will.”
Despite those warnings, others were almost ready to welcome the investment.
“The mayor [Al Stango] was against it, but he was trying to look out for the well-being of the town . . . trying to keep jobs,” Parsons recalls. And so were two City Council members who went on the record with their support.
Fortunately, two key events stopped the plan. One was the threat of long-term litigation, brought by an attorney hired by local home and business owners, who argued that the coal plant would have been illegal based on the 1971 Coastal Zone Act, which restricts industrial operations along Delaware’s waterways.
The other deciding factor against the project came from more firsthand accounts of the damage other coastal towns had suffered because of coal ports. As noted by Dennis Forney, the editor of The Whale newspaper, who flew down to Morehead City in a plane piloted by University of Delaware Marine Science Director Wadsworth Owen:
“Seeing the train tracks and coal cars – dirty, of course – going through the center of town was enough to make the decision easy. There would have been jobs, of course, but imagine a coal port instead of Cape Shores. [That] pretty much sealed the deal in terms of Lewes becoming a tourist town verses an industrial town.”
Next week we’ll spotlight the key reason Lewes streets are lined with so much treasured architecture.