December 7, 2023 in Delaware

From Religious Refuge to Beachfront Resort: The History of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware

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Early History

Rehoboth Beach is located in eastern Sussex County along the Atlantic Ocean coast. The area was originally inhabited by indigenous peoples, including the Lenape and Nanticoke tribes. These Native American groups lived in the region for thousands of years prior to European colonization. They fished the rivers and ocean, hunted local wildlife, gathered shellfish and plant foods, and traded with other tribes.

The Native Americans called the area “Rehoboth” meaning “open space for public meetings”. This referred to the circular area of open sandy beach along the shore where tribal gatherings and ceremonies were held. The Nanticoke tribe specifically named it “Rehoboth” after one of their chief villages in Maryland which had the same name. The indigenous history and legacy of the land is an important part of Rehoboth Beach’s early beginnings.

Colonial Settlement

Rehoboth Beach traces its roots back to the founding of the Rehoboth colony in 1673. The area was inhabited by the Lenape Native American tribe prior to European settlement. English colonists from Massachusetts arrived under the leadership of Rev. William Peirce to establish a new colony in the Delaware Bay area.

The colonists chose to name their settlement Rehoboth, derived from the Hebrew word for “open spaces.” It referred to the spacious and unsettled nature of the surrounding area. The founders signed an agreement known as the Rehoboth Covenant, laying out rules for land distribution, governance, and conduct within the colony.

Early colonial life in Rehoboth revolved around agriculture, fishing, and trade. Relations with Native Americans were mostly peaceful during the colony’s early years. The settlers lived in simple homes and dedicated much effort to building a church, which served as the religious and social center of the community. Overall, Rehoboth was typical of small rural colonies that were spreading across coastal North America at the time.

19th Century Development

Rehoboth Beach began to develop into a small coastal town in the 19th century. The town’s location along the Atlantic Ocean made it an attractive site for industries like fishing, whaling, and shipping.

In the early 1800s, entrepreneurs began developing services like hotels, restaurants, and shops to support the growing seasonal population of fishermen and visitors. The Gordon-Lee House, built in 1845 as a hotel, is one of the oldest remaining buildings from this era.

As Rehoboth Beach grew, new forms of transportation connected it to other cities. In the 1870s, the Junction and Breakwater Railroad was built to transport goods and people between Rehoboth Beach and Lewes. The railroad enabled further economic growth and tourism.

By the late 19th century, Rehoboth Beach was becoming known as a seaside resort town. Hotels like the Henlopen Hotel hosted vacationers escaping big East Coast cities in the summer. The seaside attractions made Rehoboth Beach an increasingly popular destination and fueled the town’s development.

Early 20th Century

In the early 20th century, Rehoboth Beach began its transition from a small coastal town to a popular beach resort destination. The draw of Rehoboth Beach’s natural beauty brought more visitors each year, with seasonal cottages being built to accommodate them.

In 1873, the Delaware Railroad extended its rail line to Lewes, connecting Rehoboth Beach to major cities. This improved transportation access paved the way for additional development. Hotels, restaurants, and amusements were built to serve the growing number of tourists.

One of the most significant developments was the construction of Rehoboth Beach’s iconic boardwalk and bandstand in 1873. The boardwalk became the social hub of the community, where residents and visitors alike gathered. Businesses sprang up along the boardwalk as tourism expanded.

The Henlopen Hotel, opened in 1890, was an early beach resort hotel that helped establish Rehoboth Beach as a vacation destination. Over the next few decades, several other hotels were built to meet demand.

As Rehoboth Beach grew into a popular beach escape, efforts were taken to improve the town’s infrastructure. By the early 1900s, electrical and telephone service had been established.

Mid 20th Century

The post-World War II period ushered in an era of rapid growth and development in Rehoboth Beach as the town transitioned into a popular vacation destination. The town was already a longtime summer getaway spot but after the war even more people began traveling to the Delaware shore for beach vacations.

The construction of Route 1 in the 1920s and later Route 404 had enabled easier automobile access. After the war, as national prosperity increased and leisure time expanded, beach vacations became increasingly popular and accessible. The suburbanization of America also fueled vacation home growth in beach towns like Rehoboth.

In the 1950s and 1960s, motels, restaurants, amusements, and retailers catering to tourists popped up at a rapid pace in Rehoboth Beach and the surrounding inland areas. High-rise condominiums and larger 2nd homes began replacing many of the old beach cottages. The town’s boardwalk and main beachfront drag, Rehoboth Avenue, became bustling hubs of activity each summer.

While the town’s reputation as a family-oriented resort was cemented, new bars and nightclubs also arose to cater to the influx of vacationers. The town became widely known by the slogan “The Nation’s Summer Capital.” After the war, Rehoboth Beach was transformed into one of the most popular seaside vacation destinations in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Late 20th Century

By the late 20th century, Rehoboth Beach had firmly established itself as a popular summer vacation destination. With its quaint downtown, boardwalk, beaches and seaside attractions, Rehoboth drew beachgoers from across the Mid-Atlantic region.

As tourism grew, efforts were made to preserve Rehoboth’s small-town charm. Building height restrictions were implemented to maintain ocean views. Downtown building facades were required to conform to the town’s traditional coastal architectural style. Trees and landscaping were added to beautify public spaces.

The growth of tourism led to the development of more hotels, motels, restaurants, shops and amusements. Mini-golf courses, waterslides and family entertainment centers opened to cater to vacationing families. Retail chains like Dolles Candyland became synonymous with Rehoboth.

By the 1990s, Rehoboth Beach had established itself as “The Nation’s Summer Capital.” LGBTQ visitors were drawn to Rehoboth’s welcoming environment. With a vibrant dining scene and lively nightlife, Rehoboth offered entertainment for all tastes. The town’s cultural cachet was cemented with the opening of the Rehoboth Art League gallery downtown.

As Rehoboth entered the 21st century, efforts continued to balance increasing tourism and development pressures with preserving the easygoing charm and family-friendly atmosphere that made it “The Nation’s Summer Capital.”

21st Century

Rehoboth Beach has continued to grow and thrive as a popular beach destination in the 21st century. The town’s economy relies heavily on tourism, with vacationers flocking to Rehoboth’s boardwalk, beaches, restaurants, and shops each summer.

Several new hotels, condos, and restaurants have opened along the beach and boardwalk area. Popular attractions include the Sea Witch Festival, the Clear Space Theatre, and the Rehoboth Beach Museum. The downtown area continues to offer excellent dining, independent shops, art galleries, and nightlife entertainment.

However, Rehoboth Beach faces challenges from climate change and sea level rise. More frequent and intense storms have caused significant beach erosion, which threatens homes and businesses near the coast. The town has worked to replenish beaches and install temporary sand dunes, but faces an uncertain future with rising oceans.

Sustainability efforts are underway to make Rehoboth more environmentally friendly and resilient to climate impacts. But balancing economic growth with adaptation measures remains an ongoing struggle. Rehoboth aims to maintain its small-town charm while continuing to serve as a vibrant beach destination into the future.

Government

Rehoboth is governed by an elected Board of Commissioners that oversees city planning and infrastructure, as well as a Mayor and City Manager. The Board is comprised of 5 members who serve staggered terms of 2 years. The Mayor is elected to 4 year terms. The City Manager is appointed by the Board of Commissioners and is responsible for overseeing day-to-day operations and implementing policies.

Key areas governed at the city level include:

  • Zoning and land use
  • Law enforcement
  • Waste management
  • Road maintenance
  • Parks and recreation
  • Parking and traffic
  • Business licensing
  • Events permitting

Some of the top priorities and policies of the local government include:

  • Managing growth and development pressures. Rehoboth has stricter zoning laws than Sussex County to preserve the small-town character.
  • Protecting natural resources. Rules limit building sizes and enforce setbacks to protect dune formations.
  • Providing services for residents and visitors. This includes trash collection, road repair, and parking management.
  • Promoting tourism and the local economy. Efforts bring visitors during the shoulder seasons with events and marketing.
  • Preparing for emergencies like coastal storms. Response plans address potential flooding, erosion, evacuations.
  • Updating aging infrastructure. Projects have focused on improving stormwater management and water quality.

The government structure balances Rehoboth’s roles as a close-knit community and busy tourist destination. The policies aim to maintain quality of life for residents while welcoming visitors.

Culture & Community

Rehoboth Beach has a rich cultural history and a diverse, vibrant community. As an arts destination, Rehoboth is home to many galleries, theaters, festivals, and cultural events.

The Rehoboth Art League, founded in 1938, is a nonprofit community art center that offers art education programs, exhibitions, and cultural events throughout the year. Key community events include the Rehoboth Art League’s Annual Members Fine Art Exhibition and the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival, which showcases independent films.

In addition to visual arts, Rehoboth has a thriving performing arts scene. The Clear Space Theatre Company performs musicals and plays, while the Rehoboth Summer Children’s Theatre provides theater education programs for kids. Downtown Rehoboth also hosts street performers and musicians during the summer months.

As a beach town popular with vacationers, Rehoboth Beach has developed a reputation as an LGBTQ-friendly travel destination. The community celebrates diversity each summer with the CAMP Rehoboth Block Party. Rehoboth Beach has been called “The Nation’s Summer Capital” for the LGBTQ community.

Beyond tourism, Rehoboth Beach has a year-round population around 1,500 residents. Retirees are drawn to Rehoboth’s coastal lifestyle and amenities. The town also attracts young professionals and families. While dominated by white residents, Rehoboth Beach has growing Hispanic and Latino populations who support the tourism industry. Overall, Rehoboth prides itself on being an open, welcoming community.

Notable People

Rehoboth Beach has been a popular summer retreat for over a century, drawing visitors ranging from presidents to celebrities. Here are some of the notable people associated with Rehoboth Beach’s history:

  • Presidents & Politicians: Several U.S. presidents have vacationed in Rehoboth Beach over the years including Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, and Bill Clinton. Vice President Joe Biden has also frequently spent time in Rehoboth where he owns a vacation home.
  • Celebrities: Rehoboth Beach has attracted celebrities from entertainment, arts, sports, and other fields. Notable visitors have included Walt Disney, Pearl Buck, Conrad Hilton, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Musial, and Charles Lindbergh. More recently, stars like Ryan Phillippe, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Blake Lively have been spotted vacationing there.
  • Artists: Many prominent American artists have lived in or visited Rehoboth Beach drawn by the scenic coastal landscape and vibrant arts community. Painters who spent time there include Edward Hopper, Henry Hensche, Frank Benson, Walter Farndon, and Howard Pyle.
  • Writers: Rehoboth Beach and its surroundings have inspired many famous writers over the years. Novelists like Pearl S. Buck, Richard McKenna, and Anne Rivers Siddons have written about the area. Poet Ogden Nash also spent summers in Rehoboth Beach.
  • Historical Residents: Some important historical residents of Rehoboth Beach include Dr. Parsons, who helped establish it as a summer resort in the 1870s, and Nicholas Burton who was an early developer of Henlopen City, which later merged with Rehoboth Beach.



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