Delaware River & Bay’s “Line in the Sand”

By Bob Trapani, Jr.

The sun sets over Delaware Bay
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The sun sets over Delaware Bay

The waters of the Delaware River & Bay have traditionally been at the center of our nation’s greatness and prosperity. For the past 230 years, since the founding of America in 1776, countless indelible moments in our nation’s history have literally rode atop the watery shoulders of the tides that run along the Delaware’s soft marshy banks to sea and back.

America’s unshakeable military power has penned many a chapter on the Delaware River thanks to the Herculean contributions of the Philadelphia Naval Yard. When it comes to helping forge unprecedented economic prosperity, look no further than the oil refineries that produce much of our nation’s petroleum products. As if this maritime activity isn’t enough, the thriving tri-state ports of Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, also move tons of precious cargo through its docks ranging from fruits to container boxes laden with all kinds of desired imported goods.

Ship transiting Delaware Bay
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Large ships up to nearly
1,000 feet in length transit the
Delaware River and Bay

The 1895 Hand Book of the Lower Delaware River, produced by the Philadelphia Maritime Exchange, aptly noted that the Delaware River and Bay “...is one of the great marine highways of the world.” But just what are the defining boundaries of this great expanse you might ask? Many people are aware of the fact that the dividing line between the mighty Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay has been determined by drawing a straight line from Cape May Lighthouse in New Jersey to Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse in Delaware, thence to the northernmost extremity of Delaware’s Cape Henlopen.

Historically, once ships had crossed this imaginary dividing line, the heavy-laden vessels carrying the fortunes of America would then transit up to 116 miles before reaching the river’s head of navigation. Nautical references will state that the Delaware Bay gives way to the waters of the Delaware River some 42 miles above the entrance to the Delaware Capes, but the demarcation line and its history remains mostly shrouded in anonymity by the heavy hand of time.

The monument at Liston Point
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The monument at Liston Point on
the Delaware side of the river

Because the public is unable to drive or walk to these precise points along the Delaware’s riverbanks, which are nestled amidst unspoiled stretches of marsh and forest, the two century-old monuments that stand silent sentinel remain unknown to all but to a few hardy watermen and naturalists.

The 1961 United States Coast Pilot notes “The line, defined arbitrarily by the legislatures of Delaware and New Jersey, extends from a monument on Liston Point, Delaware, to a similar monument on the south side of the entrance to Hope Creek, New Jersey.” The states of New Jersey and Delaware have had a longstanding battle on defining acceptable boundaries throughout the Delaware River & Bay, but as for where the bay ends and the river begins, both states finally came to an agreement back in 1905.

A close-up of the cut-granite monument
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A close-up of the cut-granite
monument south of Hope Creek
on the New Jersey side of the river

During 1905 the two state legislatures created a commission to determine what is now today’s accepted demarcation line. The commission consisted of six people – three from each state. The commission agreed upon and approved of the notion that the bay gave way to the waters of the river just south of New Jersey’s Hope Creek, then stretching across to Delaware’s Liston Point, a position officially approved on June 22, 1906.

Two fine-cut inscribed granite monuments to commemorate this landmark agreement were established on Liston Point and south of Hope Creek in 1906, but during the ensuing decades the knowledge and importance of this historical occasion faded into time. In 1967 the monument on Liston Point was reportedly destroyed, having unceremoniously fallen into the waters of the Delaware River from neglect and erosion. Sixteen years thereafter in 1983, the monument south of Hope Creek was also reported as destroyed.

This might have been the end of the line for two unique and highly historical monuments had it not been for the kindness of the Delaware River and Bay Authority who stepped up to rescue history from the doorstep of oblivion. According to William J. Miller, Jr. in his book A Ferry Tale, “In 1983, the Delaware River & Bay Authority, after consulting with officials in New Jersey and Delaware, engaged a contractor to retrieve the monuments from the river.”

A Coastguardsman admires the monument
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A Coastguardsman admires the monument
on the New Jersey side of the river,
while providing scale to its size

Miller went on to note, “New platforms have been built on each side of the river based on surveys which accurately designated the exact line on which the monuments are located. The restored markers were placed on the new piers in the latter part of 1983.”

Thanks to the efforts of the Delaware River & Bay Authority, which owns and operates the Delaware Memorial Bridge, as well as the Cape May-Lewes Ferry system, a fascinating story of historical importance and redemption has been forged for posterity. The two elegant monuments at Liston Point and south of Hope Creek now live on as silent arbiters to the question begging tangible evidence as to where the bay ends and the river begins for future generations to appreciate and ponder.

Created: August 2006

 

The inscription on the monument located south of Hope Creek, New Jersey, reads:

Mouth of the Delaware River...A straight line drawn from the centre of this monument, to the centre of a similar monument erected at Liston’s Point on the Delaware shore, is the dividing line between the Delaware River and Bay. Ascertained June 22, A.D. 1906, in pursuance of uniform acts of the Legislatures of the State of Delaware and the State of New Jersey approved A.D. 1905.

William J. Bradley
John Boyd Avis
James Strimple
Commissioners of New Jersey

Alexander B. Cooper
William S. Hilles
Walter H. Hayes
Commissioners of Delaware