Lewes seeks group to preserve railroad tracks

If no one steps up within a year, tracks will be removed
February 8, 2018

When Lewes Mayor and City Council voted to retain a small section of railroad tracks between the Lewes Public Library and the Margaret H. Rollins Community Center, it assumed groups would be knocking at the door to preserve the tracks and tell the 148-year history of the railroad in Lewes. 

But when no one stepped up, council started wondering if preserving the tracks was a good idea. With no interest in the city maintaining the tracks, council voted unanimously to establish a one-year deadline for groups to come forward. 

“I think it will take time for a group to germinate and begin to get some traction,” said Mayor Ted Becker.

Becker was assured by Department of Transportation officials that the state will remove the tracks at no cost to the city if council decides it no longer wants to keep and maintain the tracks. 

Council refined its December recommendation to DelDOT for the location of the retained tracks. It proposes preserving track from the pedestrian crossing in Stango Park to the Adams Avenue crossing, about 150 feet. 

Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, has committed to pay for a historic marker to be placed along the tracks to commemorate the long history of the railroad and its contributions to Lewes, which include transporting supplies to Fort Miles, serving the menhaden fish factory and bringing passengers to and from the city.  

Lewes Historical Society Executive Director Mike DiPaolo said that while his organization is not able to take the lead, the society would be willing to act as a facilitator for groups to create a display for the tracks.

There are still some on council who are skeptical a display is necessary. 

“The majority of towns in this nation have been impacted by railroads,” said Deputy Mayor Fred Beaufait. “The railroad has gone through and made possible most towns’ existence when trains came into being as the mode of transportation. Just to have a caboose or some other car, I don’t think it’s worth it.” 

Councilman Rob Morgan disagreed. 

“It’s true that you don’t need a caboose, but you also don’t need a lightship to commemorate the functions of the Lightship Overfalls,” he said. “The railroad was important in multiple ways to the city. You could just have a plaque [at the canal] saying there was a lightship here.”

He said a railroad display is a much more vivid and powerful reminder of the city’s heritage. 

Councilwoman Bonnie Osler questioned the likelihood a group could take on the enormous task of creating and maintaining display.

“So far no group has come forward to take on the not inconsiderable expense of finding a railroad car, refurbishing a railroad car, putting in the railroad car, maintaining the railroad car and fencing the railroad car as a living memorial,” she said.

If a group or organization were to come forward, she said, the best option may be to create a separate platform away from the tracks. 

The discussion stems from DelDOT’s decision to decommission the railroad and remove the tracks from Cape Henlopen State Park to Cool Spring, about 7.5 miles. The unsafe condition of the historic bridge over the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal forced DelDOT’s hand, as the cost of repair was too high. For years, the line through Lewes was used only a few times a month by Delaware Coast Line Railroad to transport supplies to and from SPI Pharma near the state park. 

DelDOT is finalizing its contract to remove the tracks, and work is expected to begin in the spring. The existing rail bed from Savannah Road to Minos Conaway Road will be used for the second phase of the Lewes-to-Georgetown Trail, for which construction is expected to begin in the fall.

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