History of Rehoboth Beach

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History of Rehoboth Beach

The earliest settlers known to Rehoboth Beach were Native Americans who traveled to the beach in the summer to enjoy cool ocean breezes and abundant seafood. Between 1650 and 1675, Dutch and English settlers put down roots here as the area became home to farmers and members of William Penn's earliest legislatures.


Paul Marsh, one of the original settlers, entered into the colonies around 1689. He purchased several hundred acres in Deale County (now Sussex County). His grandson, Peter Marsh, acquired about 600 acres southeast of Whorekill, the area now known as Lewes. Peter Marsh was a planter and cultivated the land to grow crops, which he transported to Philadelphia. Peter Marsh's farmhouse, the Homestead, was built in 1743. One of the first structures built in Rehoboth, today it is home to the Rehoboth Art League and appears in the National Register of Historic Places.

Rehoboth Beach can trace its municipal history back to the late 19th century. Following a restorative ocean retreat to the Jersey Coast after a bout of tuberculosis, the Reverend Robert W. Todd of St. Paul's Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington was determined to create an idyllic summer church camp located on the Delmarva Peninsula. This idea became an obsession—waking and sleeping—with the locale actually coming to him in a dream: a wide expanse of white sand situated between two bays where tall grasses grew in high dunes.

While taking an oceanside walk from what is now Dewey Beach north toward Cape Henlopen, Reverend Todd ultimately found the site he envisioned in his dream. He called it Rehoboth, taken from Rehoboth Bay, which had been named by an early English explorer in the 17th century. The name, which means "broad places" in early Hebrew, comes from the Bible (Genesis 26:22).

On January 27, 1873, The Rehoboth Beach Camp Meeting Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church was founded with the intent of providing a place for coastal religious gatherings during the summer months. Led by Reverend Todd, 30 incorporators secured a charter from the state legislature to create a Christian seaside resort.

After purchasing 414 acres from local farmers, the grounds were laid out in a fan-shaped design with wide streets, parks, and specific building lots—a design that remains largely intact today.

Later that year, the Association oversaw the construction of tents—small, one-room wooden structures situated on the encampment grounds located at the western end of Rehoboth Avenue. The tents surrounded a center structure known as The Tabernacle. Additionally, a post office was established, the first of several hotels was built, and the original Rehoboth Boardwalk was constructed—8 feet wide and 1,000 yards long.


With the advent of the railroad in 1878, the camp meeting site moved eastward to Baltimore Avenue. Church members now stayed close to the shore, and soon Rehoboth was not just a church camp but also an established oceanside town with visitors coming from Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, and Washington. Eventually the seaside resort's secular interests overshadowed the Association's religious activities. In 1879, the name of the enterprise was shortened to The Rehoboth Beach Association, and by 1881 the annual religious camp meetings were discontinued.

Although the number of permanent residents remained low, business leaders saw the need for a more-conventional government. This led to the March 19, 1891 action of the Delaware Legislature revoking the 1873 Charter and its amendments and creating a municipal government under the control of a Board of Commissioners. The new charter stated, "The purpose of said incorporation is the providing and maintaining of a permanent seaside resort, and to furnish the necessary and proper conveniences and attractions required to the success of the same."

The 1891 Charter gave the municipality the new name of Cape Henlopen City. The name was unpopular from the beginning, and so the Legislature changed the name to Rehoboth in 1893. In 1927, it became The Town of Rehoboth, and, in 1937, the official name was changed one final time to its present form—The City of Rehoboth Beach.

Throughout the years, Rehoboth Beach has seen its fair share of milestones. The first school was built in 1884, the first policeman and first lifeguard were hired in 1892, and the town elected its first mayor, Joseph D. Thompson, in 1903 and built its first Town Hall in 1906. The Rehoboth Beach Volunteer Fire Company was formed in 1906, and the Rehoboth Beach Patrol—now considered to be one of the nation's leading beach patrols—was established in 1921.

The completion of a paved highway from Georgetown, DE to Rehoboth Beach in 1925 linked the resort with roads connecting to Washington, DC, and many legislators, diplomats, and government employees would visit and vacation here. It wasn't long before Rehoboth Beach came to be known as the "Nation's Summer Capital."

The opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1952 (with a second span built in 1973) had a significant impact on Rehoboth Beach. With accessibility dramatically improved, people were flocking to the beach in droves while real estate developers clambered to snatch up valuable property, resulting in the expansion of area businesses and real estate.

For nearly 150 years, Rehoboth Beach has remained proud of its religious beginnings and family-oriented atmosphere. Regular attention is given to the continuous fulfillment of the municipality's original purpose—to offer the proper conveniences and attractions for the preservation of a successful seaside resort.

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