Erased by storms and a broader boardwalk, Surf Avenue was once Rehoboth’s place to be

By Michael Morgan, from the September 2019 issue


Today, Surf Avenue is a quiet residential street at the north end of Rehoboth just beyond the boardwalk. Beginning in the shadow of the Henlopen Hotel, the tree-lined street runs alongside the beach for five blocks before it becomes Zwaanendael Road at Henlopen Acres. What remains of Surf Avenue today is only a hint of the glory it enjoyed as the early resort’s most prestigious address.

In 1873, when leaders of the Rehoboth Beach Camp Meeting Association (an outreach of the Methodist Episcopal Church) established the town, the focal point of the resort was the meeting grounds about three-quarters of a mile from the beach. Several streets, including what was foreseen as the town’s most important artery, Rehoboth Avenue, radiated from the campground eastward until they intersected with Surf Avenue, which ran along a sandy bluff parallel to the beach. At 100 feet wide, this roadway could easily accommodate the many horses and carriages that early visitors drove to get an unobstructed view of the rolling breakers. When the Camp Meeting Association began to sell lots (at prices ranging from $75 to $150 apiece) in the nascent resort, those along Surf Avenue were quickly gobbled up first. Sales on Rehoboth Avenue, which the association believed was “destined to be one of the grandest avenues in the world,” were not as brisk, and many lots near the campground remained unsold.

After the Surf Avenue lots were sold, cottages were built, and the resort’s first grand hotel, The Surf House, began to rise on the northern edge of the beachfront. Opened in 1873, during Rehoboth’s first summer season, the new hotel was a wooden, three-story rectangular building with its long side facing the ocean. The first floor was outfitted with three parlors, an office and a dining room; the two upper floors were divided into three dozen guest rooms. The Surf House was such an immediate success that prior to the resort’s second summer season, it was enlarged when 10 dormer windows were added to the peaked roof, increasing the inn’s capacity by about 40 more guests. A portico gave guests a pleasant place to sit and watch the waves that broke about 50 yards in front of the hotel.

In 1876, William P. Rider, the proprietor of The Surf House, advertised in the Rehoboth Beacon that he had recently installed a number of feather beds for the “aged and infirm.” An experienced caterer, Rider boasted, “I feel confident of pleasing the appetites and tastes of all my guests with all the delicacies of the season.” At a time when frolicking in the ocean was a novel experience for many Americans, Rider reminded prospective guests that “bath houses and bathing suits are kept in connection with the hotel for the accommodation of all my guests.”

With The Surf House firmly established as the resort’s leading hotel, Surf Avenue was improved with the construction of Rehoboth’s first boardwalk, a narrow wooden walkway built on the ocean side of the street. The boardwalk was placed a few feet beyond the bluff that held the street, and it necessitated the construction of narrow wooden walkways to bridge the gap between the avenue and the boardwalk.

A Bright House on the avenue

Perhaps inspired by the success of The Surf House, William Bright constructed another Surf Avenue hotel. During the Civil War, this prominent Wilmington businessman made no secret of his Southern sympathies. After the battle of Gettysburg, Bright was arrested for “treasonable language” and hustled off to Fort Delaware, in the middle of the Delaware River, south of New Castle. After a humiliating month in those crowded confines, he was released. After the war, his business ventures in shambles, Bright moved to the coast as one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Camp Meeting Association. He built the Bright House Hotel several blocks south of The Surf House, at the corner of Surf and Delaware avenues.

On Thursday morning, May 25, 1876, a group of about 200 men and women left Wilmington on a special train bound for Rehoboth to take part in the opening of the inn. At that time, the tracks stopped at Lewes, where the group disembarked and boarded carriages to Rehoboth and the new hotel, which was roughly the size of the enlarged Surf House. Bright’s hotel also had a covered portico where guests could lounge and enjoy the ocean views. The stylish four-story inn was topped by a mansard roof and a tall pole bearing a large American flag, perhaps indicating that the building’s owner had abandoned his Confederate sympathies.

The operator of the Bright House, Mrs. Annie Grubb, had announced in the Beacon, “The building, which has just been finished, will be furnished with new furniture, and no pains will be spared to make it a very pleasant and comfortable home.” As was the case with The Surf House, Grubb extolled the advantages of being right on Surf Avenue with an unobstructed view of the ocean and short distance to the breakers. She also pointed out that “there are ample bathing houses upon the beach, furnished with all the appliances of sea bath, and bathing dresses can be obtained of the proprietress.”

Black cinders and ashes

Anchored by the two hotels, a nascent boardwalk and an unsurpassed view of the sea, Surf Avenue was fast becoming Rehoboth’s main street. In 1878, however, the first train came chugging into the resort along Rehoboth Avenue. Initially, the tracks stopped near the camp meeting grounds, but six years later they were extended to a new depot close to the center of town, near First Street at the beginning of the ocean block. Although the train service enabled vacationers from Washington, Baltimore and other cities easier access to Rehoboth, when the engine pulled to a stop, a cloud of smoke, soot and ashes spewed forth. The Baltimore, Chesapeake and Atlantic Railroad that ran on the Eastern Shore of Maryland was sarcastically referred to as the “Black Cinders and Ashes.” Often, passengers would ride with the windows closed to avoid the shower of soot. At the conclusion of many trips, they would disembark and knock the ashes from their clothing. The burnt cinders and other debris would accumulate on the ground, making a sooty soup when it rained. After the tracks were extended to First Street, much of Rehoboth Avenue was tormented by the clouds of smoke from the trains.

Naturally the station generated a lot of foot traffic; as a result, several shops, a post office and two small hotels, the Townsend and the Baltimore, were built on Rehoboth Avenue. Hotels at the time had large windows to capture the cooling sea breezes, but the swirl of burnt particles spewing from the train was hardly fitting for first-class hotel rooms.

Fire! Fire!

By 1879, Surf and Rehoboth avenues had developed their own distinct characteristics. The latter, with its train station, post office and shops, had a more utilitarian feel. On the other hand, Surf Avenue, with its two large hotels, oceanfront cottages, and boardwalk, was the stuff that dreams were made of, providing exactly what people came to the beach for.

In August 1879, the weather had been cool and unpleasant, which turned out to be fortuitous, as there were fewer than two dozen guests in The Surf House when their dreams were interrupted at 3 a.m. That’s when a member of the hotel staff ran up and down the halls shouting, “Fire! Fire!” What started in the laundry room quickly spread to the rest of the building. Fanned by a strong sea breeze, the flames leapt and crackled as they spewed out of the windows and up the sides of the wooden building. Terrified men, women and children grabbed a few articles of clothing and rushed down the open stairways on the outside of the burning building to the sandy beach. Rehoboth had no fire department at that time, and hotel guests, town residents and others on vacation watched helplessly as the inn was consumed by flames. Within half an hour, the building collapsed into a large and smoldering mass of rubble. The Wilmington Daily Gazette commented, “It has been the first blow that has fallen upon this seaside resort, and it has been a heavy one, and the wind that blows in from the ocean sweeps over a desolate scene.” The combination of a wooden building and a steady breeze had been fatal to the hotel, but it would not be the last catastrophic fire in Rehoboth.

An icon arises

After the blaze, the Hotel Henlopen, as it was then called, was built on Surf Avenue just north of the charred ruins of Rehoboth’s first inn. In keeping with the Methodist temperance tradition, there was no bar in the new facility, but there was plenty of music, dancing and other entertainment. In August 1884, vacationers and residents crowded into the hotel’s large dining room to enjoy “Mrs. Jarley’s Wax Works.” Based on a fictional character from Charles Dickens’ novel “The Old Curiosity Shop,” the program combined wax figures with live actors and music.

A year later, the Henlopen hosted a “musicale,” about which the Delaware Gazette and State Journal reported, “The very courteous manager, Mr. Nantisdel, had the floor cleared and dancing was participated in by all the young folks, and indeed many of the older ones take quite an interest in these pleasant hops.” The guests at the hotel were not the only ones nimble on their feet. According to a July 1899 edition of the Rehoboth Beacon, “The waiters at the Henlopen will give one of the famous Cake Walks” — a minstrel-like dance reputedly originated by slaves — “on Wednesday evening next, and are spending every effort to make it one of the best ever held.”

The Henlopen had solidified its reputation as the resort’s leading hotel by 1893, when the Bright House caught fire. As with The Surf House conflagration, that blaze spread quickly and burned brightly — the glow of the flames could be seen as far away as Lewes. The State Journal laconically commented, “There is no fire department in the town, and nothing could be done to save the building.”

Surf Avenue blossoms

The loss of the two hotels, however, did not diminish the popularity of Surf Avenue. In the late 1890s, the Casino, containing several hotel rooms, a variety of amusements — including a bowling alley, shuffleboards, ice cream parlor, bathhouses and a dance pavilion — opened on the oceanfront at Surf and Rehoboth avenues. The Casino billed itself as the “the place for pleasure and refreshment,” and in 1899 it literally lit up Rehoboth when an electric generator was installed that powered red lights on the upper balcony, strings of white lights on the rest of the building, and a bright light in the dance pavilion.

Diagonally across Surf Avenue from the Casino, Charles Horn, one of the town’s leading entrepreneurs, built a fishing pier and Horn’s Pavilion, where he sold beach sundries and ice cream. After the turn of the century, Horn’s Pavilion opened a theater to show silent movies. Farther south on the oceanfront street, a YWCA and a retreat house for Catholic nuns opened. At about this time, the first horseless carriages appeared in the resort, and the early cars scooted along Surf Avenue as the occupants took in the ocean breezes and a view of the breakers. The roadway had become the Rehoboth’s premier address, and during some summer months the renowned artist Howard Pyle could be spotted on the porch of his in-laws’ house at Surf and Baltimore avenues. Meanwhile, Rehoboth Avenue became home to a number of honky-tonk attractions, including a fortuneteller’s tent, a merry-go-round, and a blatantly racist carnival attraction known as a “negro baby trap.”

A stormy year

In January 1914, dark clouds announced the arrival of a storm that damaged Horn’s Pavilion and ripped away chunks of the boardwalk. Surf Avenue was badly eroded, and water undermined the buildings on the west side of the street. The damage was repaired, however, and a series of wooden pilings were driven into the sand to serve as a bulkhead to protect the beach side of Surf Avenue.

In the summer of that year, Rehoboth seemed to be back to normal, but in December a second storm struck. Pounding waves driven by 50 mph winds carried away bathhouses on the beach and part of Horn’s pier and pavilion. Much of the newly repaired boardwalk was also destroyed. According to the Wilmington Evening Journal, the new timbers of the bulkhead that protected Surf Avenue were “snapped off like they were reeds.” Although the Hotel Henlopen was temporarily surrounded by water, it escaped significant damage. Exposed to the direct assault of the breakers, much of Surf Avenue was washed out to sea. When the relentless waves reached the cottages and other buildings that lined Surf Avenue, owners rushed to remove their household goods before the storm carried the buildings into the ocean. When the storm abated, several houses were left teetering on the edge of a sandy precipice.

In the aftermath, the town had a choice: rebuild the boardwalk or reconstruct Surf Avenue. There was not enough money to do both. The boardwalk was rebuilt several hundred feet westward to cover what was once the grand beachfront boulevard of Rehoboth. Today, just north of the modern Henlopen Hotel, the remaining stretch of Surf Avenue is a quiet reminder of its glory days.