River Jockeys

LEWES, DELAWARE is well known today as the southern terminal of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry which saves travelers heading north or south along the coast a boat load of time. The closest alternate crossing of the Delaware River is nearly 40 miles to the north at the Delaware Memorial Bridge. It’s also a very pleasant cruise, especially in the summer months when dolphins are often spotted swimming and feeding in the bay. So pleasant in fact, that the ferry carries many walk-on passengers who travel just for the sheer joy of a boat ride. But not many passengers pause to explore Lewes; most are on their way to the Delaware beaches, the Chesapeake Bay and points south, which is unfortunate since Lewes is a beautiful old town, full of history and leisurely activities. I’m betting though, that a lot of residents and visitors prefer it that way. Especially the Delaware River pilots, some of whom live in Lewes.

Delaware Bay Pilot Boat

Delaware Bay Pilot Boat

These are people whose families have made their living traveling the river going back many generations. It is the pilots job, 24/7 to personally board and guide commercial vessels over 100 feet long up and down the shipping channel to the various ports along the river from Cape Henlopen all the way north to Trenton. They board outgoing ships as well from Philadelphia, Camden, Wilmington, and Delaware City and are also responsible for leading ships in and out of the eastern portion of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. Their organization, the Delaware Bay and River Pilots Association has its main base at the ferry terminal at Lewes. It’s from there that the pilots board launch boats and are shuttled out to waiting incoming ships. They’ll then climb a 30 foot perpetually wet rope ladder, sometimes in very nasty weather and almost always at night, and make their way to the bridge where they’ll take over the helm to guide the ship upstream for the next six to nine hours. The pilots usually average two ships on round trips each week, spending about 50 hours on the job.

The job requires extensive training and apprenticeship, and, the final exam is little changed from Mark Twain’s days as a river pilot: on a blank piece of paper they must draw the river from Cape May to Trenton to scale from memory, including every lighthouse, buoy, bridge, pipeline, wreck, shoreline and depth marker.

So the next time you take the ferry, leave some time to explore Lewes. Park your car; it’s a great walking town. Or just park your butt and take in a breath of some very historic air.




VISITING FORTESCUE today, you would never guess it was once a pretty wild and wooly place. After passing through a long stretch of pastoral marshland in Downe Township, Cumberland County, NJ, you’ll come to a small bridge over an inlet that meanders out to the Delaware Bay. You’ll see Higbee’s Marina on your right, occupied by a few fishing boats, some gulls whirling about, squawking at each other mostly, and a small number of boaters wandering around or shooting the breeze. It’s a sleepy scene to be sure.



Higbee’s is the last refuge of a huge fleet of party boats that used to carry hundreds of recreational fishermen out for a day on the water—every day. During the gravy days, visitors would stream into the bayside town for a chance to do some serious fishing in “The Weakfish Capitol of the World!”

Fishing was not the only recreation in Fortescue. During the 1930s, this seemingly innocuous little village was complete with rum runners, speak-easies and dance halls that stayed open until the wee hours. Places like the Green Door and the Gray Goose were raided regularly by the ABC (Alcohol Beverage Control) adding to the excitement of visitors and vacationers from all over the eastern seaboard. (More often than not, the officers in charge of the raids were just looking for free drinks). And it seems they actually had peep holes in their doors, just like the familiar cliches. Fortescue was just far enough off the beaten path of the ocean side resorts to make it an ideal spot for off-loading illegal liquor. A mother ship carrying the booze would anchor at “Rum Row” just outside the three-mile limit near the mouth of the Delaware Bay and the smaller but very speedy smuggling boats would pick up the illicit cargoes in the middle of the night. Boats like the Robbi, the Goose, Osenosisakak and Kashagawigamog would play cat and mouse games with the Coast Guard on a regular basis.

In August of 1933, a Coast Guard cutter from Cape May began chasing a suspected runner off Fortescue. The pursuit lasted for 15 miles before the cutter finally fired on the 50 foot boat causing an explosion and its eventual sinking. The bootleggers dove overboard and were hauled aboard the cutter and taken to Camden to await a hearing. Events like this were typical during prohibition.

Fortescue’s story goes back further than the 1930s however—much further. Back to the early eighteenth century when Lord John Fortescue’s wife Mary came into possession of about 10,000 acres of bayside property in Cumberland County. The Fortescues were from Cullington in England but it’s not clear if they ever visited their property. There were plans for development, but instead the land was sold in 1776 to one William Smith for a meager five shillings. He decided to retain the sellers name however, perhaps for status, or perhaps because Fortescue sounded tonier than Smith.

DURING THE Second World War and continuing for about twenty years, members of the Philadelphia Sketch Club (www.sketchclub.org) visited Fortescue at the invitation of Herbert and Preston Foster, who owned side-by-side summer homes known as the Salt Box and the Seahorse Cottage. The Club is the oldest artists organization in the country, founded in 1860 by a group of “Bohemians” (as they called themselves)–students at the Philadelphia Academy of The Fine Arts. I have had some of my work displayed at the Sketch Club, but despite that indiscretion, they remain one of the class acts in the American art world. During the construction of the Academy’s new facilities in the 1870s, the club invited the school to use it’s building where Thomas Eakins conducted life drawing classes, and was made an honorary member.

The Club has an equally distinguished list of other members that included illustrators, painters, watercolorists and sculptors of the likes of N.C. Wyeth (father of Andrew and grandfather of Jamie Wyeth), Howard Chandler Christy, Henry Pitz, Joseph Pennell, Thomas P. Anshutz, Benton Spruance, and Edward Redfield, among many, many others. They also counted as a member the cartoonist Pete Boyle. I remember as a child watching a local TV show he hosted called “Lunch With Uncle Pete”. I would eat my lunch every day in front of the Philco while “Uncle Pete” would show off his drawing skills and run old cartoon clips. He was also the father of actor Peter Boyle who appeared in one of my favorite movie scenes ever—as the monster in “Young Frankenstein”. He screams out “Puttin’ onna Riiiiiiz!” which was being sung by Gene Wilder as he was presenting his creation to a group of doctors and physicians. It puts me on the floor every time I see it.

After spending a week in Fortescue painting and drawing, the visiting members of the Sketch Club would either sell or give away their work to local cottagers. It would be interesting to find out how much if any of those pieces still exist. At least some of the work made it back to Philadelphia and was exhibited at the Sketch Club galleries in 1950.

A Delaware River Primer

OCCASIONALLY on weekend mornings I like to jump in my car and head out on the road. I work at home and may never leave my house for weeks at a time except for errands. Usually I have no idea where I’m going but more often than not I wind up somewhere along the Delaware River. My good friend Rick says I’m one of those people who can enjoy going for a long ride to a place that has absolutely nothing. Rick never leaves his house either, but he’s happy with that.

There’s something about seeing a large body of water that stirs me, especially if there’s some ship traffic on it. I wonder where they’re going, where they’ve been. The water’s like that too. There’s a history to it, the river.

The Delaware River Watershed

The Delaware River Watershed

The American colonies declared their independence from Britain near its banks and it was crossed and re-crossed many times by troops in the war that followed, including Washington’s famous campaign on a snowy December night in 1776. Also near its banks the first brick house in the U.S. was built and the first log cabin; the first public school in the American Colonies was established; The American Weekly Mercury, the first newspaper in the Middle Colonies was published. The first successful trial run of a steamboat took place on its waters in 1787—and—Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, collected from a secret location along its banks is used to rough up baseballs for all of the Major and Minor Leagues.

Born as run-off from the receding Wisconsin Glacier approximately 10,000-15,000 years ago, the Delaware rises from the western slopes of the Catskill Mountains. Its headwaters are actually 2 branches: the East Delaware and West Delaware. They converge in eastern New York State and become a natural boundary between New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware during a run of over 350 miles. It is the longest un-dammed river east of the Mississippi.

The river takes its name from English nobleman Thomas West, the 3rd (or 12th, if you’re able to decipher the mysterious British titling system) Baron De La Warr (or Warre), who sailed for Queen, country and the London Virginia Company to North America and landed in the Virginia Colonies on June 10, 1610 (my birthday, although not that year). He had been petitioned to persuade the Jamestown settlers not to give up their nearly disastrous attempts to establish a colony and go home to England. The colonists had arrived in the middle of a drought in 1607 and were ill-equipped to live in a land that could be abundant in good times but completely wretched in bad times. Even the native Powhatan called it “the starving time”. These settlers were businessmen and English dandies who naively expected to step off their ship and literally find gold and other valuables waiting for them. Almost none of them possessed adequate survival skills and as a result, one in every five of the colony died.

Help was on the way however, in the person of Captain Samuel Argall, an English explorer and adventurer who had been appointed to find a northerly route to the New World to avoid harrasment from the Spanish—which he did. Until this time, the customary route was to sail south towards the Caribbean, and then catch the trade winds to the coast of North America. When he arrived at Jamestown, Argall unloaded his life-saving cargo of supplies and immediately headed back to England for more. On the way, however, he was blown off course in a storm and found himself in a very large bay, unaware that Henry Hudson had been there a year before, almost to the day. Where Hudson had not given any name to the bay, Argall took the opportunity to name it in honor of his employer– The Baron De La Warr.

So the entire river, state, valley and any number of other entities have been named for Thomas West, Baron De La Warr, even though he never laid his eyes on any of it. Even the native inhabitants were called the Delaware, although they called themselves by their own name–Lenni Lenape. It means Original People. They had lived in the area for thousands of years, nearly as long as the river itself, which they called Lenape Wihittuck –Rapid Stream of the Lenape.

Their particularly lyrical language remains throughout the Delaware Valley giving us place names like Allegheny, Lehigh, Kittatinny, Lackawanna, Navasink, Pocono, Manayunk, Wissahickon and of course Mauch Chunk.

The Cape of Mey

ON the day that Henry Hudson eased his ship the “Halve Maen” (Half Moon) gingerly into the shoal-strewn Delaware Bay in 1609, he could not have dreamed he was sailing past what would one day become one of the premier vacation resorts on the Atlantic Seaboard. Playboys and presidents would relax and spend oodles of money in refined elegance. It would become one of the greatest collections of Victorian architecture in the country giving the entire town the designation as a National Historic Landmark.

Hudson, an English navigator and explorer was not concerned with the possibilities of  land development. He had been hired by the Dutch East India Company because he convinced them of his certainty of finding a passage to the Orient that would ensure a direct and lucrative trade route to the spice islands.



This would happen over and over again during the next three hundred years; many failed expeditions and many lives lost trying to locate an elusive “northwest passage”. Hudson himself would eventually become one of the casualties on a later expedition when his crew mutinied and set him adrift in what would become known as Hudson’s Bay.

It wasn’t until Roald Amundsen actually discovered a northern route to the Pacific Ocean in 1906, but it proved impractical for commercial navigation.

The directors of the VOC (de Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie) had ordered Hudson to find a northeastern route, but Hudson ignored them completely, setting a course for Newfoundland. He hugged the coast southward as far as the Chesapeake Bay, then abruptly turned around and headed north, concerned that the English at  the Jamestown colony might not appreciate an exploratory visit on the part of the Dutch. August 28, 1609 found Hudson in the mouth of the Delaware Bay where he spent the night grounded on a sand bar. The next morning, a nasty storm blew in and battered the Half Moon, but also dragged it from the sand and back out towards the Atlantic. Convinced that this could not be the illusive route to Cathay, Hudson continued north. Hugging the coast again, he came to another large bay that also proved a false passage across the continent. It would eventually become known as New York Harbor.

One year later, on almost the exact same day, another English navigator, Samuel Argall stopped by the bay for a brief visit. He was actually on a foraging expedition for the starving Jamestown colonists. Believing he was at the northern edge of the English invested Virginia territory, he named the bay and river for his superior– Thomas West, Baron De La Warre, the brand new governor of Virginia. But the name was not to stick–just yet.

Six years later, another European navigator, a Dutchman this time, entered the Delaware Bay with the intent of surveying the area and establishing trade with the Indians. He was in the employ of the New Netherland Company, which in turn was under control of the Dutch West India Company (not to be confused with the VOC). His name was Cornelius Jacobsen Mey. The area appealed to Mey, reminding him of Holland. He named the northern cape of the bay after himself and the southern cape after Hindloopen in in his native land. Mey would later bring the first immigrant families to what would become New Amsterdam, and for about a year he was its director. His name was eventually anglicized and it is because of him that we now have the city of Cape May, Cape May County, Cape May Point, Cape May Court House, Cape May Diamonds, etc.