A Brief History of Dewey and Rehoboth Beaches, Delaware

One of the first to discover Rehoboth was an unknown English sea captain from Jamestown, who was following the maps of Captain John Smith the explorer. This sailor was exploring some of the inland bays along the Delaware Coast when he and his men rowed a boat ashore for fresh water. He found a flat peninsula covered by dwarf pines and scruffy dunes, no higher than 10-12 feet from sea level. He called it “Rehoboth” from Genesis xxvi: 22— meaning Broad Places.

One of the original settlers was a man named Paul Marsh who entered into the colonies around 1689. He quickly established himself as a man of means, purchasing several hundred acres in Deale county (now Sussex).  He called his first plantation Marshy Hope.  A grandson, Peter Marsh, acquire about 600 acres southeast of Whorekill (now Lewes). Peter Marsh was a planter and cultivated the land to grow crops, which he transported to Philadelphia. Peter Marsh’s house built in 1739 was one of the first structures in Rehoboth. Today it houses the Art League, an association that promotes the arts and offers exhibitions and classes on the old Marsh Estate.  There are many descendents of the original Paul Marsh in Sussex County.

Along the coast to the south, in an area between Silver Lake and Dewey Beach, Robert West bought some land from the Marsh Family in 1855. In partnership with Joseph Comegys, (later a Delaware Chief Justice) and Manlove Hayes, a state senator from Dover, the parties incorporated a company to develop about 135 acres of land south of Silver Lake into what was called to be called “Rehoboth City”. The plan never got off the ground because of the Civil War. A second partnership resurrected the Rehoboth City vision as the  “Rehoboth Association” and bought another 500 acres with plans to purchase the Dodd Farm as a second stage. This plan also languished.  The development finally got underway in 1925 and is now called “Rehoboth By the Sea”.

“It came to him in a dream.”  Robert W. Todd, a Methodist Episcopal minister from Wilmington St. Paul’s Church, had visited an ocean retreat along the Jersey Coast when he had had a bout with tuberculosis. The fair skies, the salt air and the mesmerizing waves had greatly restored his health.  He was determined to find a place for a summer church camp along Delmarva—so obsessed was he that he saw the place in a dream; a wide strip of clear white sand on the Delmarva Peninsula, located between two bays where tall grasses grew in the high dunes and shellfish crawled in the surf. One morning while staying in a lodge on the oceanside of Dewey Beach, he walked north toward Cape Henlopen, along the shore.  By mid-morning he had found the site from his dream.

In 1871 he purchased 414 acres along the ocean from farmers, and named it “Rehoboth”. The Rehoboth Beach Camp Meeting Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church,  was formally established on January 27, 1873.

The original camp was located in west Rehoboth along a creek in an area called “the encampment grounds”. With the arrival of the railroad in 1877 the camp meeting site was moved closer to the water, along Baltimore Avenue. Church members stayed near the shore in small wooden structures called “tents”. The lots were laid out in a fan shape along the water, between two lakes, Lake Gerar to the north and Newbold Lake to the south. By 1890, Rehoboth was not only a church camp, but an established Oceanside town. Church camps continued for decades, with Sunday service in the Tabernacle Tent on the beachside. Prohibition increased commerce along the inland bays. There were many small wharves along the western section of the Indian River Bay where the rum runners could secretly unload and store their cargo—later to be delivered to speakeasies in Rosedale and Oak Orchard. Local legend says that during the Prohibition Era, one could leave Reverend Todd’s Tabernacle in Rehoboth and drive a horse and buggy south one mile (Dewey Beach) where a businessman served whiskey and beer —good drink to quench one’s thirst on a hot August day.

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