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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.