Digest>Archives> March 2004

Mistaken Identity

By Bob Trapani, Jr.


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Cape May Lighthouse. Courtesy of the Bob Lewis ...

A guiding light is every mariner’s friend. Throughout history, lighthouses have saved countless lives by sending out a beam of hope to ships trying to escape the clutches of terrifying storms or the gripping blindness of night. One can only imagine the great relief of a captain on a storm-tossed vessel who anxiously peered out over chaotic seascapes fraught with danger when he suddenly spotted the light of a lifesaving sentinel.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Cape Henlopen Lighthouse. From the collection ...

Upon obtaining a fix on a lighthouse, the captain could usually stand at the helm with confidence and steer a course towards a pathway to safety. Unfortunately, perusing the pages of seafaring history will illuminate a “dark side” of lighthouses when human error transformed the sentinel from a guiding light into a beacon of danger. Though the light cast from a lighthouse was always perfect in its warning, the same could not be said of mariners. On nights when wind-driven seas proved mountainous, rain or snow blurred the horizon or fog distorted the atmosphere, a captain’s judgment of his whereabouts was anything but certain. Whether impaired by stress, apprehension, exhaustion or a lack of familiarity, a ship’s crew was occasionally the victim of their mistaken identification of lights.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Five-Fathom Bank Lightship. Courtesy of the Bob ...

During the 1800s and early 1900s, few bodies of water were more treacherous to navigate than the mouth of the Delaware Bay. Sailing vessels utilized either an eastern or southern sea-lane depending on their last port of call and scanned the horizon for three lights to guide them to the doorstep of the bay. Towering over sandy capes at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay, Delaware’s Cape Henlopen Lighthouse and New Jersey’s Cape May Lighthouse worked with Five-Fathom Bank Lightship to protect shipping interests and were usually a friendly sight to mariners. Yet, regardless of weather conditions, the exact opposite could prove true on certain occasions.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Classic image of a 19th century mariner. ...

On February 10, 1888, the bark Marcotte was bound for the Delaware Breakwater with a cargo of sugar and a crew of ten before stranding south of Cape Henlopen. Keeper Thomas Truxton of the Rehoboth Beach Life-Saving Station described the situation, saying, “When I arrived, I found the vessel lying broadside on and rolling very heavy. The night was intensely dark accompanied by blinding sleet which obscured the wreck from proper view.” After a great amount of difficulty wrought by the storm, the lifesavers rescued the shipwreck victims and cared for them back at the station. According to Keeper Truxton, the shipwreck occurred due to the fact that “the weather was thick by spells, the lights showing only when the mist would clear away—this only occurring at long intervals. Consequently, the Cape Henlopen Light was thought to be Cape May.”

The bark Marcotte wouldn’t be the last vessel to commit the same error. During a stormy northeaster on September 6, 1889, the coal-laden schooner Lewis Clark confused Cape Henlopen Lighthouse for Cape May and subsequently wrecked on the point of Cape Henlopen, Delaware. Another vessel to mistake the lights at the entrance of the Delaware Bay was the British steamer Asphadel that stranded on Rehoboth Beach, December 5, 1893. The weather was nasty with fierce northeast winds whipping up heavy seas while strong hail was falling and obscuring the horizon when the Asphadel encountered trouble. The four-masted schooner Estella Phinney also stranded along the Delaware coast on December 5, 1901 for the same reason of mistaking Cape Henlopen Light for Cape May.

Though the mariner’s mistaken identification of lights was often between the coastal towers of Cape Henlopen and Cape May, the lightship station Five-Fathom Bank also played a role in the confusion. On February 18, 1885, the brig Edward H. Williams was bound from Cuba to Philadelphia with a cargo of molasses when she struck a sandy shoal on the southern coast of Delaware. According to the 1885 Annual Report of the United States Life-Saving Service, the weather wasn’t really a factor, citing, “At the time she struck the tide was high, with a fresh wind blowing from the north, and the weather was clear. The Cape Henlopen Light had been mistaken for the Five-Fathom Bank Lightship, hence the casualty.”

As a letter from Captain Robert Bosworth to the Lighthouse Board on April 27, 1852 points out, mistakenly identifying the lights at the entrance of the Delaware Bay wasn’t always the fault of the mariner. In this case, human error or indifference on the part of the Lighthouse Service also played a factor in the confusion. Captain Bosworth’s letter stated, “Our light vessels, on the coast of the United States, do not compare with those of Great Britain as to certainty of position or brilliancy; for example: I left Philadelphia in May 1851, bound to St. Johns and Europe; passed the lightship off Cape May close; returning from Europe I fully expected to find the lightship at the station, being in summer and nothing at the season to drive her off; having good observations we stood boldly in, knowing from our latitude that we could not pass her without seeing the lightship, if at her station; made a light towards morning, and from its reflection on the water appeared like two lights one above the other; after looking with a good glass I felt confident, but passed the lead forward for a sounding, although considering it mere form; the depth of water not exactly agreeing, tacked ship and stood off for daylight, when, to our amazement, the lightship was not there, and it was Cape Henlopen Light we saw, and but for the lead we should have gone ashore with three hundred and sixty souls and a valuable cargo on board. The lightship wanted repairs and was taken away and nothing sent to supply her place; probably a small notice was put in the public prints, but it could not go to the ends of the world, and what sea is not whitened by an American sail. On inquiry I found that more than one vessel had gone ashore, by being deceived by the reflection of Cape Henlopen Light on the water, showing as two lights. The lightship should carry three lights and all others in a similar position, and a relief ship should always be in readiness in case of removal by accident or for repairs - such is always the case in England.”

Though these cases of mistaken identity were the exception to the rule, history does show this lesser known side of lighthouses and how the sentinels’ usefulness could be altered by Mother Nature and human error, resulting in shipwrecks and the potential for loss of life.

This story appeared in the March 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History