Lewes seeks to preserve section of railroad

DelDOT to remove more than 6 miles of decommissioned track
December 28, 2017

Lewes council will ask state officials to preserve a small section of railroad track near the Lewes History Museum when track is removed in the spring.

Officials from the Department of Transportation announced earlier this year it would decommission the railroad from Cool Spring to Lewes. Six miles of rail, including all crossings, are slated for removal up to Lewes city limits, but the future of the rails within Lewes is still up for consideration. The final decision will be made by DelDOT Secretary Jennifer Cohan.

In a motion, Councilman Rob Morgan asked DelDOT to leave the section of rail between the new Lewes Public Library and the Rollins Community Center, home of the new Lewes History Museum. 

“Just as Lewes has a historical relationship to the sea, it has a historical relationship to the railroads too,” he said. 

The railroad in Lewes dates back to 1870. In addition to providing passenger transport, it also supported many industries, including lumber yards, canneries and fisheries. The last train left Lewes with three rail cars in tow Dec. 15. 

Many residents spoke in favor of keeping at least a section of track for historical value.

“History is what people come here for – other than the beach – and it’s what we are about,” said Gail van Gilder. “There’s so much that could be done. It’s not a rusty, old railroad track.” 

“If we’re about history, preservation, restoration and telling the story of Lewes, the railroad is a significant part of that,” said Barbara Warnell, chair of the historic preservation commission and a member of the Lewes Historical Society board.

Until last year, Delaware Coast Line Railroad hauled materials to and from SPI Pharma near Cape Henlopen State Park a few times a month. That all changed when it was discovered the historic swing bridge over the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal was unsafe. After further study, DelDOT determined it would be too expensive to repair the bridge and decided to decommission the railroad line.

DelDOT expects to begin removing the rail line in the spring, with a targeted start in April. Before that can occur, DelDOT must first receive approval from the Surface Transportation Board of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and then the project will be advertised, said Bob Perrine, DelDOT’s railroad program manager. Due to the size and scope, Perrine said, the project should attract national companies and affordable estimates. 

Councilman Fred Beaufait was the lone vote against retaining any railroad. He said leaving a small section of tracks has no historic value.

“You can’t look at a pair of rails and see they’re 100-some years old,” he said. “They could’ve been placed there 50 years ago for all I know. You can’t preserve all of history, otherwise there wouldn’t be any room for progress. I don’t see the need to save it.” 

Joe Hoechner, a member of the planning commission, agreed, saying unused rail lines could send the wrong message.

“To me, abandoned railroad lines are depressing,” he said, noting he lived in western Pennsylvania for 30 years and saw many unused tracks. “Rusty, abandoned rail lines are a sign of depression and loss of population. It’s not a good thing to see.”

DelDOT officials say the swing bridge in the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal will be removed at some point. Perrine said DelDOT recognizes the historic value of the bridge and will try to find an appropriate place to display it. 

If DelDOT grants Lewes’ request to keep a section of rail, residents debated how the railroad could be memorialized. 

Mayor Ted Becker said state archives officials are interested in placing a historic marker along the railroad between the Lewes Public Library and the new Rollins Community Center. Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, has already agreed to sponsor and finance the marker. 

Some residents were also in favor of acquiring a rail car to place on the tracks; however, Becker warned that the cost could be high.

“It would undoubtedly come to us unrestored and it would take a considerable amount of money to restore it,” he said. 

Resident Mike Tyler pointed to the Lightship Overfalls to show what volunteers are capable of in Lewes. 

“They had a lot of volunteers who stood up and did what they needed to do to save that ship,” he said.