By Cori Burcham
A vacation to southern Delaware brings to mind sunbathing on the beaches, dining on locally sourced blue crabs, or browsing boutiques advocating the coastal lifestyle. But a little way from the crowded beaches and boardwalks, there are hidden getaways west of the coast that most tourists and even some locals aren’t aware exist.
While the past few years have been challenging for Delaware tourism due to the pandemic, Southern Delaware Tourism, which markets Sussex County as a destination, expects 2022 to be an excellent year for visitation. One of its objectives this summer is to call attention to the lesser known destinations scattered throughout western Sussex.
“Most visitors are initially drawn here because of our beaches and waterways and that’s great, but our tagline is ‘Beaches are just the beginning.’ We want to inform and encourage our visitors to explore and discover all of the attractions and activities that exist beyond the beaches,” said Tina Coleman, communications manager at Southern Delaware Tourism.
The agency’s aim isn’t to discourage visitors from taking a trip to eastern Sussex, but rather to motivate them to visit western Sussex in addition to their current beach plans. On a rainy or undesignated beach day, people can travel a short distance inland to visit some of the following destinations in western Sussex that highlight the surrounding area’s flora and fauna, waterways, and history.
Nanticoke Heritage Byway
Extending from the city of Seaford, to Bethel, Laurel, and Trap Pond State Park, the Nanticoke Heritage Byway is a 40-mile long route that is the home of some of western Sussex’s best outdoor recreation and historical sites.
According to Nanticoke Heritage Byway Director James Diehl, Trap Pond State Park is one of the most well-known sites along the byway, but it’s still often overlooked by tourists heading out to Cape Henlopen or Delaware Seashore State Park.
During the summer months, kayaks, canoes, rowboats, and pedal boats are available to rent for trips on the pond. On a hike along the Bob Trail or on the guided pontoon boat tours on the weekends, visitors can admire the northernmost group of bald cypress trees in the continental U.S. The park facilities also include sites for tent, cabin, yurt, or RV camping and a nature center.
Diehl notes that the Woodland Ferry offers those traveling between Seaford and Laurel a shorter, more scenic route across the Nanticoke River. In his book “Remembering Sussex County: From Zwaanendael to King Chicken,” Diehl asserts that the Woodland Ferry is one of the oldest ferries still in operation today in the United States and writes about its interesting origins.
Formerly known as Cannon’s Ferry, ownership of the ferry was passed down through three-generations of Cannons and was rumored to be associated with Patty Cannon’s slave running trade. When the loan shark Cannon brothers Isaac and Jacob came into possession of the ferry, they attained exclusive ferrying rights, which gave them a monopoly of the business and allowed them to overcharge passengers, according to the stories. Disliked by their neighbors for their disreputable business practices and for being slaveowners, Jacob Cannon was shot and killed at the ferry by a disgruntled local. Eventually the state took control of the ferry, which was then made free to the public.
According to Diehl, Phillips Landing is a peaceful retreat that remains one of western Sussex’s best kept secrets. The recreation area has nature trails that are perfect for a day of hiking or bird watching. It’s also the site of the Captain John Smith Memorial, which commemorates the English explorer who was the first European to visit the Nanticoke River and who met with Nanticoke Indian chiefs. To explore more sites along the Nanticoke Heritage Byway, visit nanticokeheritagebyway.org for the full list of attractions.
While the Seaford Museum is one of the sites featured along the Nanticoke Heritage Byway, it warrants a standalone mention. Apart from chronicling the history of Seaford and the surrounding area, the building that houses the museum is historic itself since it was the site of the city’s first public post office in the 1930s. The museum was designed and constructed by local volunteers.
Among the exhibits, some of which are interactive, visitors will learn about the history of the Nanticoke Indians, the nearby shipbuilding industry, Black river pilots, the railroad, and Harriet Tubman’s rescue of Tilly, an enslaved woman who was led to safety through the Nanticoke River. Other exhibits detail the story of Gov. William Ross and his wife Elizabeth, and Patty Cannon, an infamous murderer who was accused of directing her own criminal organization for over 30 years.
Skipping to the 21st century, visitors can also learn about the invention of nylon, the world’s first synthetic fiber, and Seaford’s rise to becoming the “Nylon Capital of the World” before the departure of DuPont.
One of the latest exhibits, the Nanticoke Maritime Gallery, features a glimpse of the Nanticoke River at night when the waterway is less active. The museum offers self-guided tours on Fridays, and the first and second Saturdays and Sundays of the month, between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. While entry costs $7 per person, visitors can opt for a combination ticket to both the Seaford Museum and Ross Mansion for $12.
Governor Ross Mansion
After being introduced to Gov. William Ross at the Seaford Museum, head down the road for a tour of the Governor Ross Mansion, the private home of the Civil War-era governor. One of the most intriguing aspects of the site is the story behind Ross himself, who managed to be known as both a local hero and a pariah who was run out of the country.
During his four-year-long term as Delaware’s 27th democratic governor, Ross was a key player in the establishment of the railroad in southern Delaware, which increased trade with Philadelphia and strengthened the local economy. According to Diehl, during the beginning of the Civil War when Delaware sided with the northern cause, Ross, a sympathizer of the Confederacy and a slave owner, had a bounty placed on his head by President Lincoln and fled to England.
Apart from viewing Ross Mansion’s Italianate architecture common to the Antebellum period, with its three-story tower, roofing brackets, and arched windows and doors, visitors will get a firsthand look at a pre-Civil War way of life afforded only to the wealthy. David Grantz, the executive director of the Seaford Historical Society, noted that a docent on the tour will detail the daily routine of the household, the role of the enslaved people on the farm, and walk you through the only documented log slave quarters in Delaware located beside the mansion.
According to Ross Mansion Manager Margaret Alexander, the Ross family were some of the last slaveholders in Delaware and less than 2 percent of Delaware’s population was still enslaved at the start of the Civil War.
While visitors won’t be able to tour the interior of the surrounding buildings, the 22-acre property also features a granary, stable, corn cribs, smokehouse, and honeymoon cottage.
Ross Mansion maintains regular hours every Saturday and every first and second Sunday of the month from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., but any group that arrives later than 3:30 p.m. won’t have the opportunity to take the tour. To schedule a private group tour outside of regular hours, call (302) 628-9500. For more information, visit www.seafordhistoricalsociety.com.
Additional source: Seaford Historical Society
Paddling Broad Creek
Last year, Quest Adventures of Lewes launched a program that offered a selection of guided paddle tours on Broad Creek, a tributary of the Nanticoke River, in Laurel. The new self-service kayak rental station provides the opportunity to explore Delaware waterways beyond the Cape Henlopen region.
According to Quest Adventures owner Matthew Carter, most people visiting southern Delaware expect to see the ocean and bay, but exploring the inland rivers, where the waterways begin and flow out to the Chesapeake and Delaware bays, allows tourists to experience everything southern Delaware has to offer. Since Broad Creek runs through woodlands, fields and salt marshes, and leads to the Chesapeake Bay, paddlers can get a glimpse of the entire ecosystem.
Mark Carter, the Kayak Tour Director at Quest Adventures, marveled at the way paddlers could theoretically traverse the whole waterway west toward the Chesapeake where Captain John Smith first entered the area.
While 2021 acted as a trial run for the program, literally testing the waters to gauge public interest, Quest Kayaks is not only continuing Broad Creek’s paddle tours this year throughout the summer and fall, but has expanded its variety of trips.
Some of the tours returning this summer detail the history of the surrounding area. Partnering with a local Native American, one of the paddle tours also explores the history of the Nanticoke Indian tribe. There’s also an ecotour specifically centered on the migratory patterns of birds in the area. According to Jim Rapp at Delmarva Birding Weekends, ornithology enthusiasts might have the chance to spot some prothonotary warblers, summer tanagers, or white-eyed vireos on the tour.
The tours being added to the roster this year include an evening full moon paddle and an owl prowl at dusk. Paddlers also have the option of renting kayaks for regular self-guided river trips.
Bethel Shipbuilding Village
In the historic town of Bethel, discover a former shipbuilding community founded in the late 1700s.
According Diehl’s book, Bethel is featured on the National Register of Historical Places and is the only town in Sussex County with such a distinction, which is why much of the town’s seafaring history is proudly put on display.
Bethel is known for designing the sailing ram, a schooner that was once used to traverse the shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay, bringing trade opportunities to formerly inaccessible locations. In addition to a variety of boats, the Bethel shipyard constructed about 40 sailing rams in its heyday.
Visitors can stroll along Bethel’s Historic District, where the road is fashioned from oyster shells, and white clapboard houses built by carpenters from the shipyard still stand.
Stop in at the historic Bethel Store for a snack and admire the 200-year-old pillars, which are repurposed ship masts. A former schoolhouse is now the site of the Bethel Historic Museum, which features exhibits of handcrafted model ships, shipbuilding tools, Native American artifacts, and the story of the “Edwin and Maud,” the last Bethel sailing ram, currently anchored in Maine.
Between May and November, the museum is open on the first Sunday of the month from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. More information about Bethel’s various attractions can be found at nanticokeheritagebyway.org.
Additional source: Bethel Historical Society
Middle Point Marker
History buffs should consider a trip to Middle Point, one of the most famous stone markers along the Mason-Dixon Line. Featured on the National Register of Historic Places, the monument indicates the southwestern point where the borders of Delaware and Maryland meet.
While the Mason-Dixon marker at first appears to be a plain limestone slab, the monument contributed to the resolution of a land dispute that spanned three generations and dates back to Colonial America. When George Calvert and William Penn were first granted charters to form the colonies of Maryland and Pennsylvania respectively, the land deeded to them by different British kings overlapped, giving both families a claim to the property.
After multiple failed attempts to survey the border, both colonies agreed to hire astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon from England to resolve the issue in 1763. While it took Mason and Dixon four years to walk the 233-mile-long border, putting down stones for every mile, the boundary dispute was finally settled when King George III approved the new border in 1769. Their survey of the Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware border became known as the Mason-Dixon Line, recognized as the invisible border between the northern and southern states.
Located east of Mardela Springs, Maryland and west of Delmar, Delaware, Middle Point can be a bit challenging to find, but the journey to the site makes the experience all the more authentic since it requires traveling along the border like Mason and Dixon did during their historic survey.
Under a barred pavilion, the Mason-Dixon marker bears the coats of arms of the Calvert and Penn families. Behind the marker are additional stones placed by local surveyors indicating past attempts to establish the border.
Don't forget to eat
Apart from these sites, you can find restaurants in western Sussex that hold the same repute as eateries available on the eastern side of the county.
After completing a paddling adventure along Broad Creek, head down the road to Tacos Chabelita, a family-owned restaurant that specializes in authentic Mexican cuisine.
Upon finding Middle Point, reward yourself with one of Old Mill Crab House’s famous all-you- can-eat specials, which feature the popular local cuisine of fried chicken, corn on the cob, and Maryland blue crab.
Only a short walk from the Seaford Museum lies Bon Appetit, a French restaurant known for blending various world cuisines.
For those who don’t opt for the familiar this summer by visiting Delaware’s beaches alone, the western side of the county has a lot to explore.