“The Bright House, the largest hotel at Rehoboth,” the Wilmington Evening Journal reported on Dec. 5, 1893, “was totally destroyed by fire last night. The large frame building made a great blaze and it was plainly seen for miles around. The fire was discovered early and, as a stiff breeze was blowing at the time, the large hotel was in ruins in a short time.”
The spectacular fire, which was reportedly seen as far as Lewes and Milford, marked an end to one of Rehoboth’s first great hotels.
William Bright, a prominent Wilmington businessman, constructed the Bright House, shortly after Rehoboth Beach was founded as Delaware’s first oceanfront resort.
During the Civil War, Northern officials smarted over reports that Bright had offered support for the Confederates. (The truth of these rumors has never been substantiated; and it is possible that some of Bright’s business rivals had instigated these stories in an effort to discredit him.)
In 1863, after the battle of Gettysburg, Bright was arrested for “treasonable language” and hustled off to Fort Delaware. After spending a month in the crowded confines of Fort Delaware, Bright was released.
He placed a sarcastic advertisement in the Delaware State Journal and Statesman: “Just arrived from Fort Delaware — The subscriber was arrested and taken out of a sick bed at Midnight on 7th of July last and sent to Fort Delaware, and from the good accommodations, sea breezes, and high living, has been restored to perfect health, and is now prepared to sell or exchange all kinds of real estate to any person that will favor him with a call. Apply to William Bright, Wilmington, Delaware.”
After the war, Bright became one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Camp Meeting Association; and he built the large, wooden Bright House Hotel on Surf Avenue overlooking the ocean.
On Thursday morning, May 25, 1876, a large group of about 200 men and women left Wilmington on a special train bound for Rehoboth to take part in the opening of the Bright House.
At that time, the tracks stopped at Lewes, where the group disembarked and boarded carriages to Rehoboth and the new hotel. The stylish four-story hotel was topped by a mansard roof, and it had a covered portico where guests could lounge and enjoy the ocean views.
In 1876, the operator of the Bright House, Mrs. Annie Grubb, announced in the Rehoboth 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.”
Grubb extolled the advantages of being right on Surf Avenue, with an unobstructed view of the ocean and within fifty yards of the breakers.
According to the Evening Journal, the Bright House, “was four stories high and contained about 100 rooms. There were also several large back buildings. The building was handsomely furnished, but, it is said, it was never run successfully. About three years ago it was sold by Mr. Bright to the present owner, E. Graham of Dover.”
The wood-frame hotel was dried by the summer sun and constant sea breeze that made the Bright House was a virtual tinder box that invited catastrophe.
Fortunately, when the building caught fire in the first week of December 1893, the Bright House was closed for the winter, and there were no guests in hotel.
At that time, Rehoboth had no fire department, and all the few people who were in town could do is watch the building burn to the ground in a fire that could be seen from Lewes and beyond.
Evening Journal, Dec. 5, 1893.
Milford Chronicle, Dec. 8, 1893.
Delaware State Journal and Statesman, Aug. 14, 1863.
Harold Bell Hancock, Delaware During the Civil War, Wilmington: Delaware Heritage Commission, 2003, p. 135
This article originally appeared on Salisbury Daily Times: Rehoboth hotel fire that lit up southern Delaware: History