When Ernie Felici looks at the rebar-enforced concrete towers that dot Coastal Highway between Dewey Beach and Fenwick Island, he sees an opportunity.
Some five million cars drive along this stretch every year, he said.
"We hook them at Tower 1," north of Fenwick Island, he said.
Then, they stop at the tower just south of Dewey and take in a panoramic view of the ocean and Rehoboth Bay, he said.
Then, said Gary Wray, with the Fort Miles Historical Association, "they pole vault right up to the museum" in Lewes to learn more about Delaware's key role during World War II.
Felici, Wray and former Dewey Beach Mayor Bob Frederick are working with state park officials to restore the tower near the Delaware Seashore State Park bathhouse, just off the busy highway.
The project – to install lighting and a safe staircase in the tower, open it to visitors and create a pavilion for special events – is expected to cost $2.1 million.
Felici said their goal is to raise the money and complete the work in the next 3 to 5 years.
So far, they've raised about $80,000.
There were once 11 towers from Cape May, New Jersey, south to Fenwick Island State Park, built between 1939 and 1942 as part of a national coastal defense system. They were built to last 20 years, but Felici said they are still in excellent condition.
Each of the towers was linked by a communication system that connected them back to gun batteries at Fort Miles in Lewes. The former Army fort, which is within Cape Henlopen State Park, was a high point along the coast, and it was selected by the government as a key position to protect coastal shipping and the entrance to the Delaware River and Bay during World War II. Wilmington, Camden and Philadelphia manufacturing facilities played a significant role in the war effort.
As WWII progressed in Europe, federal defense authorities wanted to protect the coast from Nazi naval threats. The army quickly built Fort Miles.
Many people mistakenly think the towers were observation platforms. But in reality, they were used to triangulate the position of ships moving off the coast and determine the firing patterns for the big guns, hidden in dunes at the fort. The guns were never fired at a hostile target but they were fired as part of drills.
Many believe the towers have lasted so long because they were reinforced with rebar and the concrete used to build them was poured continuously as the structures were built.
One of the towers – Tower 7 – is open to the public at Cape Henlopen State Park. A second one has been restored on Delaware Bay in New Jersey. The tower just south of Dewey, if restored and opened for visitors, would be the only one open to visitors along the ocean.
"This is the magnet that will actually attract people to the fort," Frederick said.
The organization's plan is to break the project into three phases. Drainage is a major concern on the site and the adjacent parking lot. In addition, about half of the bricked-off entry door to the tower is covered by sand.
Once the drainage is addressed, the team proposes installing a spiral staircase, expected to cost about $450,000.
The final phase will be the construction of a pavilion between the tower and the bathhouse.
Wray said that eventually, park officials could rent the area as a venue for special events, reunions and weddings.
"We have the structure," Felici said. "We have the parking."
Contact Molly Murray at (302) 463-3334 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MollyMurraytnj.