Slaughter Beach, Delaware

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Seasonal, Traditions
on November 5, 2000

Slaughter Beach, Del., has no grocery store, though it once did. It has no gas station, no hotel, and no boardwalk, though it once did. There are fewer inhabitants in this fishing town of 130 than it had at the turn of the century.

Once a popular resort town for vacationing families, population in Slaughter Beach declined as erosion devoured its shoreline. A powerful hurricane in 1962 ravaged the beach, dumping sand into the main street and filling summer cottages with water. The disaster seemed to set off a chain reaction that included the closing of the liquor store, the general store, and finally, the restaurant that once operated adjacent to the now deserted Mispillion Lighthouse.

Still, the town survives. What keeps Slaughter Beach alive is its love for nature, a passion for the Atlantic Ocean, a fondness for Delaware Bay, and a respect for the tidal marsh that borders the town.

Town councilman Ron Annett has lived in Slaughter Beach for more than six years and loves it. Weve got the ocean outside of our front door and Mother Nature right outside the back door, he says. Weve got the best of both worlds.

Homes line the gently curving shoreline like a string of skyboxes. Residents here have four-season tickets to some of natures most spectacular shows. The first performance begins in the spring with the influx of thousands of spawning American horseshoe crabs. A misnomer, really, the crab (Limulus polyphemus) is actually more of a kissing cousin to the spider than kin to the crab. Bobbing in the surf like cast-off army helmets, the cinnamon-colored females make their way each spring from the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean to the warm sands of Slaughter Beach. Each crab lays as many as 80,000 tiny sea foam green eggs to be fertilized by waiting male crabs.

Enter the birds. As if on cue, countless hundreds of migratory shorebirds famished by their flight from the tip of South America arrive at the shore, blanketing the beach in search of the tapioca-sized eggs that lay buried in shallow nests in the sand. Experts from the Delaware Division of Wildlife estimate that as many as 30 different species of birds flock to Slaughter Beach each spring to participate in the frenetic peck-and-swallow ballet. Hugely territorial, their raucous squabbling is both awe-inspiring and deafening.

The summer brings fishermen who come to Slaughter Beach simply to leave Slaughter Beach: Scores of fishermen and women park their trucks and trailers to launch their motorboats into sparkling Delaware Bay for a day of fishing. For families who live in town, summer is a stream of houseguests eager to go boating or to spend a lazy afternoon crabbing with the children along the banks of the Slaughter Canal, just as they did when they were children.

Its really a family-oriented town, says Annett. We dont have a lot of traffic or tourists. Were a close-knit little community.

Summers halftime show is man made. Fireworks fill the sky, and hundreds of families from surrounding towns arrive to celebrate the Fourth of July. A dedicated volunteer fire company sponsors the event that has entertained visitors for decades. Attendees hope for an ocean breeze with good cause: Wind that travels across the marsh from the west brings flies of legendary proportion.

Even paradise has its problems, says Annett philosophically. “We really dont have a west wind that often. When you get that ocean breezethats what makes it all worthwhile.”

In the autumn, the spotlight falls on the enormous tidal marsh that hugs the town. Designated a national wildlife refuge, the marsh is a popular stop for migrating songbirds. It also hosts a dazzling array of ducks, Canada geese and snow geese. Many winter over on the refuge. Annett says its not uncommon to see deer tracks along the beach in the mornings.

And winter? Winter is for those who love watching the sea in all its changing moodsfog, storm, wave-wracked beaches, steel-blue water under a slate-gray sky. For those who enjoy solitude, there is nothing to equal it, and winter offers patient residents the best beachcombing of the year.

And its true: though the town has no grocery store, no hotel, and no boardwalk, it has the ocean, the bay and the marsh, and all the wildlife within. In Slaughter Beach, nature never closes her doorsand that suits families here just fine.