Bethel is a small, well-preserved 19th century shipbuilding and trading community, located on Broad Creek in western Sussex County between Seaford and Laurel. Wooden sailing vessels were constructed by Bethel’s skilled ship carpenters until the early -20th century. The most significant class of Bethel craft were the Chesapeake sailing rams, which originated from this Broad Creek port.
The Town of Bethel was formerly known as both Lewis’ Wharf and Lewisville. The site was originally part of five hundred acres granted by the province of Maryland to James Caldwell in 1728. In 1795, Kendall Lewis, the founder of Bethel, acquired much of James Caldwell’s original grant as well as a smaller tract on Broad Creek. Here he established a landing that grew to become a prosperous trading center. In the 1840’s, Lewis’ Wharf developed into a thriving community known as Lewisville.
Within the next 20 years, Lewisville was to become an important shipbuilding center. The extensive forests along the Nanticoke provided abundant supplies of virgin pine, oak and cypress. Between 1871 and 1918, as many as thirty rams were built in Lewisville shipyards.
This class of sailing vessel was designed as an economical, flat-bottom, three masted schooner and it operation required only a small crew. Rams were used for coastal freight primarily on the Chesapeake Bay. In 1880, when the village applied for a post office, its name was changed to Bethel, since another Lewisville, DE post office already existed.
Today Bethel is part of western Sussex County’s active agricultural economy. Bethel residents treasure Bethel’s rich, maritime past and look forward to the future.
Jeff Hastings, President
Bethel Town Council