From a Rust Bucket in a Muddy Hole
to a National Historic Landmark in 13 Hard Years.
David Berneisel, Overfalls Foundation

Overfalls logo

Our project turned a rust bucket in a muddy hole into a National Historic Landmark over a difficult, 13 year period. The story had many aspects: there was restoration...administration... raising and a lot more needed to make it all happen. I will touch on many of them to provide a context but I will put most emphasis on fund raising. When we get to the Q & As, we can expand it to any questions related to the project.

Let's start with the ship.

Launch day

She's a lightship built in 1938 which served on three New England stations.

Painted Cornfield

First was Cornfield Point in the east end of Long Island Sound, then Cross Rip near Martha's Vineyard just south of Cape Cod and finally Boston until she was taken out of service in 1972. In 1973, the Coast Guard donated her to the Lewes Historical Society who repainted her OVERFALLS in honor of the station closest to Lewes, Delaware where lightships marked the entrance to Delaware Bay from 1898 to 1960. Her next 26 years were hard on her as her slip silted in and resources available for maintenance went from scarce to nonexistent. By 1999, she was the proverbial rust bucket aground in a muddy hole.

As Cross Rip

As Boston


That was the year our foundation formed and took possession of the ship. The new organization's goal was clear:

Save Our Ship

Save Our Ship! One of the first tasks developed a comprehensive plan to meet that goal. The problem was that that, even with extensive use of volunteer labor, executing the plan would have a capital cost of $1.2 million. The Foundation had neither significant resources nor the credibility needed to raise that kind of money.



The plan was front loaded with tasks using volunteer labor designed to show dramatic progress quickly and cost little to implement. Still there were costs; these were funded by membership dues, fund raising social events, ship's store sales and small donations. Things that looked like this, started to look like this. As the appearance of the ship improved, the Foundation's credibility increased and the ability to raise funds kept pace.

Windlass before

Windlass after

Legislative Hall

The volunteer effort was not confined to the ship's work crew. Obviously, the Foundation ran a strong fund raising effort. In addition, there was an aggressive outreach program telling the story to the local citizens, businesses, philanthropic foundations and government at all levels.


Also, the Foundation ran a very active social program which served two purposes: first, it made it fun for the members who were doing the work and it attracted new members, and second, it reinforced the good will built by the outreach program. All of this together, combined with the ship's improving appearance....


we made things that looked like this,

Hull Painted and Primed

by putting in a lot of effort,

New Red Paint

start to look like this. That kind of progress gave the Foundation the reputation of a credible organization that accomplished big things and that in turn took our fund raising program to a higher level. For our program that was indeed a higher level as, at $50,000 with a 60-40 match, it exceeded the amount of all capital contributions received to date combined.

Joe Booth check

From this point on, I will define the higher level as the ability to raise funds in six figure amounts, $100,000 and greater.

Mike Castle check

Our first of these came in the fall of 2005 as a federal Save America's Treasures grant of $275,000 which we were required to match on a 50-50 basis with non-federal money. Within two months, we followed that with $200,000 of state, transportation enhancement money which also required a 50-50 match so the two could match each other.

Irish Eyes Party

This is a little impromptu get together at a local watering hole to celebrate that one. As you may imagine, we were euphoric; it's hard to be humble when your rag tag group is raising money like that. But, we gave credit where credit was the large numbers of local citizens who had supported us. Because we knew it was the strong grassroots support that made the larger grants possible. Even with the big double success, we were still a long way from $1.2 million. We received several grants from philanthropic foundations, the largest was $100,000. Then we started a naming opportunities program. This is fairly common in museums and other nonprofits where donors are able to purchase the naming rights to components of the ship. We had a whole array of possibilities from a rivet for $250 to the beacon light for $100,000. We did, however, take a different approach than many others as we did not want to have little brass plaques all over the ship. So we planned an Area of Recognition off of the ship where the donors are honored and their purchased item is identified. On the ship, we have a publication entitled the Naming Opportunity Locator Log which will help visitors locate any of the named items. This log would be used to locate specific items such as Porthole #14 or Watertight Door #6. In our big push for funds, we raised about $200,000 with this program.


The beacon light

Area of Recognition

As we are moving along the timeline, it is now 2008 and we have raised $900,000 of the $1.2 million. We had sufficient to have a shipyard install new hull plating from the waterline down to the keel. This is a task that we had deemed critical for a long time as the hull was beginning to rust completely through. So far we had been able to patch the holes but we feared that eventually the old hull plating would not be good enough to hold our temporary patches.

The plan was that the ship would go the shipyard in the fall of 2008, and the hope was to build the permanent berth while she was gone. That way, we would bring her home to the new berth and the muddy hole would be only a dim memory. However, we were still $300,000 short of enough to build the berth. You may recall that 2008 was the year that the U.S. economy went into a deep recession. All of the normal sources of funding were totally depleted. Still, we made the rounds and knocked on doors. One of the stops was with the state highway department where we had gotten the $200,000 of TE funds in 2005. Our official there reported that, not only did he have no funds to distribute, he would not have any until at least 2013. As we were desperate, we asked to be put on his list. He knew and we knew that any commitment now would have no bearing on the situation in five years so his response was, "sure, why not, how much do you need?" Our fund raising chair, who was with me, said that we need $300,000. His response as he went to write the number on his paper was that the amount wouldn't be a big issue so she quickly said $400,000. He said fine as he wrote $400,000 and his body language said, you're not going to get anything anyway. As we were leaving his office, I asked about stimulus funds. He responded that he knew nothing of stimulus funds as that was only an issue being debated in our current presidential campaign and we were still months away from the election.

Even though the permanent berth is still just a pipe dream, we had to take care of the ship before she disintegrated before our very eyes.


To do that, we had to get the ship floating and

Leaving Lewes

tow her to a shipyard where she would get all new steel plate from the waterline down to the keel.

In drydock

Here she is in drydock, the first time in over 35 years.

After pressure watch

This is how the hull looked after the 40,000PSI pressure wash took off all of the marine growth, paint and rust. Looking closely you can see all of the small holes where rust had eaten through and other holes from missing rivets. The only thing holding her together was the rust; had the shipyard trip been delayed another year, we would have lost the ship.

First coat of paint

Next the old hull plate got a new coat of paint.

Bending on steel

Here they are bending on the new hull plating.

Going back in the water

After three more coats of paint and installation of 40 new zincs, we're going back in the water. Not included in the $1.2 million but critical to the project were "in-kind" donations of the tow and the new steel plate, worth about $50,000 each.

By January 2009, the work at the shipyard was completed and we had to bring her home or face very large charges for storage. Despite all of our efforts at fund raising, we were still $300,000 short on funds to build the berth. This seemed to always be the case with our fund raising. We never had assurance of enough to finish the job, but we always had enough to get us to the next step. The magic in that old, red ship kept telling us, "have faith, keep going". So, as much as we hated to do it we made preparations to bring the ship home

The tow home

to her muddy hole as soon as the weather turned better. Then, on March 13, 2009, my man at the highway department called to tell me that we were on the Governor's list to receive $400,000 of federal stimulus funds, this was one of the better days in my life. Now, I won't bore you with the complications of:

  • using federal funds,
  • distributed through the state,
  • administered by the city,
  • supervised by the Foundation, and
  • controlled and audited by all but believe me it was worth it.

With all of these guys in the mix, the procurement process was brutal, but on March 17, 2010 we finally had a construction firm on site

First Kuhn shot

and by the end of the month the first permanent steel went in the ground.

Kuhn template

Here they have constructed a template to guide the new sheet pile. Placement of the first piece is critical as all of the others will key on it. After the first piece it went quickly as they vibrated them into the ground.

The slip taking shape

Now the slip is starting to take shape. After all of this, we can't leave the grounds looking like a construction site

Landscape plan

so this is the plan for the grounds.

Landscape work

Finally, here we are implementing the landscape plan.


On September 10, 2010, we had our biggest party ever to celebrate the completion of the twelve year project to save the ship and put her in a setting worthy of her past and the crews who served aboard.

Lyle guns

The party ended with a bang.


Our rust bucket in a muddy hole became this.

Signature photo

It was a happy crowd.

The next year, 2011, was a time to clean up some loose ends. The biggest of these was an initiative which we had pursued for over six years,

Senator Carper unveiling the NHL plaque

having the ship designated a National Historic Landmark.

The NHL plaque

That calls for another big party.

We are so proud of this one. Delaware has just three counties and the ship is the only NHL in Sussex County. It's the only maritime oriented NHL in the State. And, of all of the 2500 Landmarks in the country, the Overfalls is unique in that we are the only one that got two plaques from the National Park Service. Have you read it closely? See anything wrong with it? At the foundry they had a cockney Brit doing the proof reading. So, we got two plaques, one to mount on the ship and one to go on the brick wall out front.

So, was that it? Did we reach the end? We prefer to think of it as the end of the beginning. We are now a different kind of organization but it is still important that we keep our focus. We have to remember who we are and how we got here. From a financial perspective, revenue generation will be different in the future too. Those big grants were one-time events that came because we were saving a maritime treasure that was at serious risk of being lost. While that is behind us now, the need for revenue to preserve and enhance her is still there. Our operating revenue made up of membership dues, ship admissions, Ship's Store sales and regular fund raising events will still be there but that won't be sufficient to run the Foundation and sustain the ship.

We are now projecting that a more important source of revenue going forward will be income from an endowment fund. The difficult part of an endowment fund is raising the money to create it. Here we are going back to where we started in, working with our membership and local citizens. We have started a "planned giving" program; the Foundation wants to be remembered in the individuals wills. Now, despite the fact that we have been in operation 13 years with an elderly membership, fortunately we have lost relatively few members so we don't have much experience with this yet. But, we have put together a solid planned giving program and the early indications are promising. We started out with good publicity backing that up with a brochure and a piece on our web site. Then the real key is the follow up where we discuss it with our members individually. Participants in the program are designated Navigators and they will be recognized on our grounds.

Memorial Walkway

The recognition will be in the form of inscribed bricks in the Navigators' Patio which will be similar to our Memorial Walkway which honors those members who have crossed the bar. We are the only organization I know that honors all passed members in such a significant manner. While the Navigators' Patio and the Memorial Walkway are unrelated, the fact that we have the latter creates a tighter bond with the members and makes participation in the planned giving program more likely.

That is our story, it has been a learning experience for us so far and the learning continues. We feel we enjoyed good success in the first phase but we are a different kind of an organization now. The challenge will be to make the needed changes without losing the strength and zeal that brought us to this point.


That ends my day except for any questions you may have. Thank you for your attention.


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