Delaware Bay

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Delaware Bay

Delaware Bay is a large esturarial inlet of the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Delaware River along the coast of the United States. It is bordered by the state of New Jersey on the north, and the state of Delaware in the south.

The bay opens into the Atlantic between Cape May on the New Jersey side and Cape Henlopen on the Delaware side. Collectively the two capes are sometimes known as the Delaware Capes. The Cape May-Lewes Ferry crosses the Delaware Bay from Cape May, New Jersey to Lewes, Delaware. Management of ports along the bay is the responsibility of the Delaware River and Bay Authority.

The shores of the bay are largely composed of salt marshes and mud flats, with only small communities inhabiting the shore of the lower. Besides the Delaware, it is fed by numerous smaller streams. The rivers on the Delaware side include (from north to south): the Christina River, the Appoquinimink River, the Leipsic River, the Smyrna River, the St. Jones River, and the Murderkill River. Rivers on the New Jersey side include the Salem River, Cohansey Creek, and the Maurice River. Several of the rivers hold protected status for the unique salt marsh wetlands along the shore of the bay. The bay serves as a breeding ground for many aquatic species, including horseshoe crabs. The bay is also a prime oystering ground.


At the time of the arrival of the Europeans in the 17th century, the area around the bay was inhabited by the Lenape (also called the Delaware tribe, after whom the bay and river are named). The first recorded European visit to the bay was by Henry Hudson in 1609. In the middle 17th century, the area of the bay was claimed by the Dutch as part of the New Netherland colony. It was also settled by the Swedish, as part of the New Sweden colony, resulting in conflicts with the Dutch, who eventually took control of the area. After the British took control of the area, the area of the present day states of Delaware and Pennsylvania was granted to William Penn, who also controlled the area of West Jersey on the north side of the river. The area was quickly settled, leading to the growth of Philadelphia upriver on the Delaware as the largest city in North America in the 18th century.

The strategic importance of the bay was noticed by the Marquis de Lafayette during the American Revolutionary War, who proposed the use of Pea Patch Island at the head of the bay for a defensive fortification to protect the important ports Philadelphia and New Castle, Delaware. Fort Delaware was later constructed on Pea Patch Island. During the American Civil War it was used as a Union prison camp.

In 1885, the United States government undertook systematically the formation of a 26-ft. channel 600 ft. wide from Philadelphia to deep water in Delaware Bay. The River and Harbor Act of 1899 provided for a 30-foot channel 600 feet wide from Philadelphia to the deep water of the bay. The bay today is one of the most important navigational channels in the United States. Its lower course forms part of the Intracoastal Waterway. The need for direct navigation around the two capes into the ocean is circumvented by the Cape May Canal and the Lewes & Rehoboth Canal at the north and south capes respectively. The upper bay is also connected directly to the north end of Chesapeake Bay by the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

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