December 6, 2023 in Delaware

From Coastal Hamlet to Bustling Beach Town: The Fascinating History of Bethany Beach, Delaware

Early History

The area now known as Bethany Beach has a long history of human settlement. Archaeological evidence indicates that Native American tribes, likely the Assateagues and Nanticokes, inhabited the coastal region for thousands of years prior to European exploration. These tribes sustained themselves through fishing, hunting, and agriculture.

In the 1600s, English and Dutch explorers first mapped the mid-Atlantic coastline, including the area around present-day Bethany Beach. While some trading relationships were established, permanent European settlement did not begin until the mid-1700s.

Bethany Beach itself was formally founded in the late 1800s by Christian missionaries who wanted to establish a retreat location. The town was incorporated in 1909. Early settlers were drawn by the area’s natural beauty, temperate climate, and access to the ocean. Agriculture and fishing were mainstays of the local economy. The population remained small for decades, as Bethany Beach maintained its identity as a quiet, isolated retreat.

19th Century Development

Bethany Beach began to develop rapidly in the late 1800s as coastal towns grew in popularity as seaside vacation destinations. The town was established in 1909 when a group of Methodists from Washington, D.C. purchased 400 acres of land to create a Christian seaside resort community.

Infrastructure projects helped connect Bethany Beach to larger cities and made it more accessible. The railroad arrived in the 1870s, allowing vacationers from Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. to travel to the Delaware beaches. Trolleys also enabled people to move between Rehoboth Beach and Bethany Beach.

Hotels, restaurants, shops, and other businesses sprung up to serve these new vacationers. The town’s wooden boardwalk was built in the early 1900s, creating a lively hub along the beach. The number of houses and cottages also expanded greatly during this period.

While founded as a religious resort, over time Bethany Beach shed its “strict Methodist” rules and became a popular beach destination for all. The early 20th century marked a period of growth and development that shaped Bethany Beach’s identity as a charming beach town.

The Boardwalk

Bethany Beach’s boardwalk has been an iconic part of the town since it first opened in 1901. Constructed out of wood and running parallel to the shoreline, the boardwalk helped transform Bethany Beach into a popular seaside resort destination.

The boardwalk brought many new businesses and amenities to the previously sleepy fishing village. Hotels, restaurants, arcades, shops selling souvenirs and beach gear, and other attractions sprang up along the boardwalk to serve the growing numbers of tourists. For over a century, the boardwalk has been the social and economic heart of Bethany Beach.

Walking along the boardwalk became a favorite pastime for visitors and residents alike. Generations have enjoyed strolling along the boardwalk, people watching, playing games, eating salt water taffy, and taking in views of the ocean. Several pavilions were built over the years, giving people places to gather protected from the hot summer sun.

While the boardwalk has been rebuilt and upgraded many times, it still retains the nostalgic, old-fashioned seaside charm that has captivated people for over 100 years. The boardwalk continues to be the main draw attracting tourists to Bethany Beach, keeping its economy flowing. For locals and returning vacationers, the boardwalk evokes treasured memories of lazy summer days spent by the sea.

The Beach

Bethany Beach’s coastline along the Atlantic Ocean is the main draw for visitors. With over 1 mile of beautiful sandy beach, Bethany is a popular vacation destination.

The wide sandy beach has a gradual slope into the ocean, making it ideal for swimming and playing. Lifeguards are on duty during the summer months. The beach bustles with activity during the day but becomes serene at sunset as people gather to watch the glowing evening sky.

While the beach itself has remained relatively unchanged, the activities and amenities surrounding it have evolved over the years. What was once an empty shoreline now contains a vibrant boardwalk, hotels, restaurants, and beach houses.

In the early 20th century, visitors arrived by train and stayed at small guest houses near the beach. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s that larger hotels, motels, and vacation rentals started appearing to accommodate the growing tourism. Dining and entertainment options expanded as well.

The beach has been the site of many time-honored traditions and events over the decades. Lifeguard tournaments, bonfires, concerts, and holiday celebrations have made lasting memories. Locals and visitors look forward to these annual festivities on the beach each summer.

While the backdrop of gently rolling waves remains a constant, Bethany Beach continues to enhance the amenities for beachgoers today. New activities emerge, allowing both nostalgic and novel ways to enjoy the stunning seaside setting. The beach is the heart and soul of this coastal town.

Historic Architecture

Bethany Beach has a number of homes, hotels, and other buildings that showcase popular architectural styles from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The most prevalent styles include Victorian, Queen Anne, Gothic Revival, and Arts and Crafts movements.

Some of the most notable historic buildings include the Addy Sea Inn, a Queen Anne-style bed and breakfast built in 1892. Its distinctive turret and wrap-around porch make it stand out along the boardwalk. The Bethany Beach Nature Center is another noteworthy building, originally constructed as a Methodist meeting hall in 1904 with Gothic Revival architectural details.

Several organizations are dedicated to preserving Bethany Beach’s historic architecture. The Bethany Beach Landmark Foundation has placed commemorative markers on buildings of historic significance and published walking tours of historic homes and hotels. The Addy Sea Inn and several other late Victorian homes are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Strict zoning codes and design guidelines have enabled Bethany Beach to retain its unique historic character, despite much new development and growth in recent decades.

Preserving these architectural treasures allows visitors and residents to glimpse Bethany Beach’s origins as a Methodist camp meeting site and quiet coastal town of the late 1800s. The historic architecture adds to the old-fashioned charm that makes the town unique today.

Cultural Attractions

Bethany Beach has a vibrant arts and culture scene, with events and attractions that span decades of the town’s history.

The Bethany Beach Cultural Arts Center opened in 2003 in a restored 1913 schoolhouse. It hosts art exhibits, concerts, lectures, children’s programs, and more throughout the year. The Cultural Arts Center is a hub for local artists and a treasured community gathering place.

One of Bethany Beach’s most beloved annual cultural traditions is the Bethany Beach Boardwalk Arts Festival, held each September. Artists from along the East Coast display and sell their work, including paintings, sculpture, photography, ceramics, jewelry, and more. Live music and street performers entertain festival-goers as well. The Boardwalk Arts Festival has been a highlight of the fall season in Bethany Beach for over 30 years.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Bethany Beach hosted concerts by famous jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Top pop and rock stars also performed in town during the beach resort’s heyday, entertaining packed crowds. While large concerts are less common today, live music still fills the air in restaurants, bars, and at the town’s summer bandstand concerts.

Over the decades, Bethany Beach has been a quiet seaside escape for presidents, authors, artists, musicians, and more. Notable residents have included President Richard Nixon, military general Omar Bradley, and Delaware governor Pete du Pont. Their coastal homes provided a refuge from public life. Bethany Beach continues to be a serene retreat from the limelight for prominent figures today.

The town’s cultural identity stems from its rich history as a beachside art colony and destination. Music, theater, art galleries, festivals, and more enrich Bethany Beach’s small town charm. Both visitors and locals cherish the cultural experiences found in this seaside community.

The Town Today

Bethany Beach today is a vibrant coastal town with a year-round population of about 1,000 that swells to over 15,000 in the summer. It continues to be a popular beach destination and has retained its quaint, small-town charm even as it has grown.

Demographics

According to census data, Bethany Beach has a permanent population of just over 1,000 people as of 2010. However, during the summer months the population explodes, with an estimated 15,000-20,000 vacationers flocking to Bethany to enjoy its beach and attractions. The racial makeup of Bethany Beach is predominantly white. In 2010, 95.5% of residents identified as white, 1.6% as Black or African American, 0.9% Asian, and 1.9% as two or more races. The median age is 61 years old.

Economy

The economy of Bethany Beach relies heavily on tourism, especially in the summer months. Many residents own or work at motels, restaurants, shops and other tourism-related businesses. Popular jobs include servers, cooks, clerks, housekeepers, property managers and more. The town also has a small year-round population of retirees. Median household income is around $67,000.

Tourism Industry

Tourism is by the far the main industry in Bethany Beach. Over 15,000 visitors flock to the town in the summer, staying in the numerous hotels, motels, rentals and campgrounds. Key attractions bringing in visitors include the boardwalk, clean beaches, restaurants, summer cultural events and concerts, fishing and more. Tourism provides the majority of revenue and jobs in Bethany Beach. The town relies on tourists to keep its shops, restaurants and attractions in business.

Noteworthy Residents

Bethany Beach has been home to many noteworthy residents over the years. Here are some of the famous people and important historical figures who have called Bethany Beach home:

  • Joe Biden, the 46th President of the United States, has long had a vacation home in Bethany Beach. The Biden family has spent most summers and holidays here since the 1970s.
  • Billionaire Michael Bloomberg owns a large beachfront estate in Bethany Beach. He has hosted political fundraisers and parties here.
  • Children’s author Beverly Cleary spent summers in Bethany Beach as a child in the 1920s and 1930s. She has said these memories inspired some scenes in her beloved Ramona books.
  • Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin had a house in the North Bethany area. He organized the famous 1963 March on Washington here.
  • DuPont chemical company heir Willis Harrington lived in Bethany Beach for over 50 years. He donated oceanfront land that became Bethany Beach’s bandstand park.
  • Several astronauts like Neil Armstrong, John Glenn and Buzz Aldrin vacationed in Bethany Beach during the early space program era.
  • The famous ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau sailed his ship Calypso out of Bethany Beach while filming ocean documentaries in the 1970s.
  • Bethany Beach’s founder Alexander “Farr” Bennett was an accomplished Philadelphia lawyer who developed the town in the early 1900s. The central business district is named Farr Street after him.

Impact of Major Events

Major events throughout history have shaped Bethany Beach into the popular vacation destination it is today.

  • The Great Depression in the 1930s brought an influx of visitors looking for an affordable beach getaway. Boarding houses popped up to accommodate these thrifty travelers.
  • World War II in the 1940s saw the beach become a retreat for soldiers on leave. The Christian Missionary Society held retreats here during the war years.
  • Hurricane Hazel struck the Delaware coast in 1954, destroying homes and businesses. Rebuilding efforts modernized the town in the aftermath.
  • As the Civil Rights Movement took hold in the 1960s, Bethany Beach integrated its hotels, motels, and restaurants. African American vacationers began visiting as segregation ended.
  • The gas crisis of the 1970s led many vacationers to stay closer to home. Bethany Beach saw more regional tourists as people avoided long car trips.
  • Development boomed in Bethany Beach starting in the 1980s as more vacation homes were built. Property values rose as the town became a popular second-home destination.
  • The Great Recession of 2008-2009 impacted tourism and development. But Bethany Beach rebounded as the economy improved.

Major historical events have shaped the ebb and flow of Bethany Beach over the decades. But the town continues to thrive as a beloved beach vacation destination.

Legacy and Historical Significance

Over the course of its history, Bethany Beach has witnessed periods of dramatic change as well as extended seasons of quiet small-town life. Through it all, the town has reinvented itself while retaining its distinctive coastal charm.

Although now known as a popular vacation destination, Bethany Beach had humble beginnings in the late 1800s as a remote seaside camp meeting spot. Its transformation into a thriving beach town occurred gradually over the course of the 20th century. This evolution reflects larger trends of postwar suburbanization, the rise of leisure travel, and the enduring allure of the oceanfront.

Today, Bethany Beach prides itself on maintaining a family-friendly, community-oriented atmosphere. Even as it attracts growing numbers of visitors, the town remains committed to responsible growth and preserving its natural coastal habitat. The careful balancing of tourism, development, and conservation provides an instructive model for shoreline communities nationwide.

As it enters a new era, Bethany Beach has shown how a small town can adapt to changing times without losing its identity. By learning from the past while looking to the future, Bethany Beach can continue to progress as a livable seaside escape that honors its long history. The town’s legacy is one of resilience, reinvention, and respect for its beautiful coastal setting.




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