Telling the SAT Story: Lightship LV-118 Overfalls

Overfalls Lightship
Lewes, DE
Year of Award: 2005
National Park Service SAT Grant: $275,000
Matching Share Leveraged: $277,488

Lewes, Delaware is a town with a love for the sea, a unique ship, and a heavy dose of gumption. A can-do spirit drove a group from Lewes to preserve a rare floating lighthouse, called a “lightship.”

Located on the entrance to the Delaware Bay, Lewes was incorporated as a whaling town by Dutch settlers in 1631. In 1898, the federal government stationed the Overfalls lightship station off the coast of Lewes. Lightships served the Overfalls station and marked the entrance to the Delaware Bay, guiding ships to safety. Atop the lightships, 1,000-watt lights flashed every 3 seconds from dusk until dawn, directing ships up to 12 miles away. The lightships also had a foghorn to guide mariners in fog. With a range of five miles, horns sounded every 30 seconds in cloudy weather. A radio beacon on the lightships directed vessels further at sea, signaling to ships in Morse code up to 25 miles away.

By the mid-1900s, the need for lightships dwindled and in 1960, after 62 years of service, the Overfalls station was discontinued. Over the next 25 years, the boat sat in a canal in Lewes. Resources to maintain the ship became nonexistent. Before long, it was seven feet deep in mud. The mud began to corrode the ship and soon rust ate holes through the ship’s hull. The once-treasured lightship had become an eyesore. The ship was in such deteriorated condition it was deemed impossible to tow out of Lewes. Officials were afraid it would sink and block the canal, and it was in danger of being scrapped. However, scrapping the boat, Lewes resident David Bernheisel says, would have left an “environmental disaster in the canal,” with clean-up costs estimated at approximately $1.2 million.

A shot of the Overfalls’s hull in mud before restoration.

When Lewes Historical Society (LHS) members realized how dire the boat’s situation was, a sense of urgency took hold. An LHS member rallied a committed group together and formed the Overfalls Foundation. In 2005, the all-volunteer group applied for a Save America’s Treasures (SAT) grant, and received $275,000 to repair and preserve the Overfalls station. Bernheisel, a Foundation member, emphasizes how the SAT grant gave the Foundation the credibility needed to solicit private matching funds. It signaled to funders that the Foundation was serious about the project and that the boat was worthy of preservation.

U.S. Rep. Mike Castle (R, DE) delivers the SAT check.

U.S. Rep. Mike Castle (R, DE) delivers the SAT check.

With the Federal award in-hand and no prior expertise in fundraising, the team raised $277,488, to match the SAT grant. The momentum created after securing a Save America’s Treasures grant from the National Park Service allowed this dedicated group to also raise an additional $697,512 dollars to refurbish the lightship and solidify their town’s longstanding connection to the ocean outside of the match. They engaged the community and potential funders by opening the ship up for public tours on a regular schedule and holding social events. The publicity helped: 200 community members attended the ship’s 70th Birthday Party. When the ship was towed out of Lewes at 7:30 a.m. for its final restoration, the Foundation threw a celebration that 2,000 people, out of Lewes’s total population of 2,800, attended. Before the ship left the Bay, Rev. Jeffry Ross, a local episcopal reverend, boarded the ship to bless it.

The Overfalls made its two-day trek  to Norfolk, Virginia, where it was fully restored, despite setbacks along the way, including a bent mast and shattered china insulator. Seven months later, the Overfalls was tugged back to Lewes, fully restored. More than 2,000 people formed the welcome home party. Seven “Lyle” guns fired salutes as the boat arrived back into the Lewes canal.

More than just appearing at events, however, the community became involved with the ship in specific ways. The Foundation estimates that volunteer hours spent on the ship exceeded 85,000, between painting the ship, donating supplies, clearing the park around the ship, and other tasks. Those who wanted to become involved in the project could. Boy Scout Jake Mocci, for example, restored the ship’s propeller as a step to earn his Eagle Scout rank.

A group of local Cub Scouts tours the light ship.

A group of local Cub Scouts tours the light ship.

The revival of the Overfalls not only brought the Lewes community together, it also brought a much-needed economic stimulus to Lewes. A crane operator working on the Overfalls commented that he had been “laid off for three months” before the Overfalls project came along. Between painters, craftspeople, tugboats, craftspeople, crew members, and more, hundreds of people were employed by the project, making a real impact on them and their families.

Now that the Overfalls is safely back in Lewes and impeccably restored, it is a major tourist attraction. Regularly scheduled tours are held at the boat and local schools, scouts, and camp children come aboard the ship to learn about their region’s history and the ocean.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D) unveiling the ship's National Historic Landmark plaque in 2011.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D, DE) unveiling the ship’s National Historic Landmark plaque in 2011.

David Bernheisel remarks how this Save America’s Treasures story is a “perfect example” of how federal funds “empowered a local, grassroots organization” to raise money and save one of America’s treasures, now a National Historic Landmark. Thanks to the Save America’s Treasures grant and the unrelenting perseverance of the Overfalls Foundation, an environmental disaster was averted, a community brought together, and a ship transformed from an eyesore stuck in seven feet of mud to, as Bernheisel says, “a major attraction in a town that prides itself on its close relationship with the sea.” Revenue from tourists has helped the city keep its seafaring treasure maintained and generations to come can now learn about Lewes’s important and steeped history as a waterfront town.

For more information on the Overfalls Lightship, please visit their website or connect with the Historical Foundation on Facebook.

Established in 1999, the Save America’s Treasures program is managed by the National Park Service, with the National Endowment Agencies, to preserve and protect nationally significant properties and collections for future generations of Americans. Stories of saving those treasures will be shared through partnership with the American Architectural Foundation.



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Posted in: Center for Design & Cultural Heritage, Print, Save America's Treasures

The American Architectural Foundation has been dedicated to advancing the role of architecture and design in American society since its founding in 1943 by the American Institute of Architects.

In its 75 years in existence the Foundation’s work has taken many forms — from educational programming and exhibitions in its early years to large-scale design initiatives and programs —all of which serve to create a rich legacy.

As the managing partner of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design for twenty years, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the United States Conference of Mayors, the Foundation helped move the needle on design and cities. And, through its other signature programs like Save America’s Treasures in partnership with National Parks Service, the Sustainable Cities Design Academy, and Design for Learning, the Foundation has provided critical design leadership training and technical assistance to hundreds of elected officials, education leaders, business leaders, and other key decision makers in the design process.

In recent years, cities and civic leaders have embraced design and design thinking in a way that could not have been imagined when the Foundation begin its work back in 1943 — and AAF’s role in this transformation is a source of great pride for the Foundation. With this increased interest in the role of design in shaping our cities came a proliferation of new organizations to support and facilitate this cultural shift. These advances in the role of design in American society and changes in the nonprofit design sector, coupled with the departure of the organization’s longest-serving CEO, prompted the Foundation’s Board to embark on an intensive and lengthy process to examine the ongoing role and work of the Foundation.

As the Board of Regents reflected on the positive changes of the cultural value of design, the accomplishments of the Foundation, and how the legacy of the Foundation’s work is being carried out by its former staff in new roles and organizations across the country, they reached the conclusion that the American Architectural Foundation had accomplished what it set out to do. As a result, the Foundation began to complete its remaining programs and wind down its operations in the Summer of 2018 and the organization’s endowments have been distributed to allied organizations. The Foundation’s research and reports will remain available on its website as a resource to the field.

The Foundation’s work would not have been possible without the incredible talents of its many staff over the decades, the generous support of its funders, and the tireless dedication of its civic & design partners across the country. The Board remains deeply proud of the significant contributions Foundation has made in its 75-year history and would like to acknowledge that this would not have been possible without the efforts, dedication, and support from so many of you.