The future of Lewes’ century-old swing bridge over the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal is uncertain, as Department of Transportation officials try to find a new home for preservation.
Earlier this month, DelDOT officials met with Lewes Mayor and City Council to discuss possible locations for a stationary display of the 103-year-old bridge. The bridge was deemed unsafe in 2017 after it was discovered scouring around the bridge supports had dropped the bridge 7 to 8 inches. The railroad line from Cool Spring to Lewes was later decommissioned and removed, and now officials seek to remove the bridge.
If a location for preservation cannot be found, Jason Hastings, chief of bridges and structures for DelDOT, said the most likely outcome is to scrap the bridge and preserve it through photographs or by saving smaller pieces of the bridge. The goal, he said, is to begin removing the bridge in the fall of 2020.
DelDOT’s preference is to move the 87-foot-long span, including the super structure and some of the mechanical parts, to the city-owned open field behind the Lewes Public Library. Officials presented renderings of the bridge in the space.
“We situated it as far from the library as we could so the space in between could be used in the future,” said Jason Hastings, chief of bridges and structures for DelDOT.
The Lewes Junction Railroad and Bridge Association, whose goal is, in part, to preserve the bridge, has suggested several other locations, including within the state’s right of way near the library. Hastings said DelDOT’s legal counsel advised them against placing the bridge on state property.
“We don’t want this entity in state right of way … it would become a liability for maintenance and safety,” he said. “Our mission is transportation related. We’re not a historic and preservation-minded agency. The Transportation Trust Fund is for transportation projects. We’re trying to make the best use of our funding with the mission the funding is intended for.”
Alex Tarantino, an architecture historian with DelDOT, said the goal is to move the bridge to a location within Lewes and as close as possible to the former railroad.
“When we were looking at a parcel map, [the library] location stood out to us because it’s publicly owned and it’s in close proximity to the railroad,” she said.
Hastings said DelDOT is reaching out to the city as federal law requires when dealing with a historic structure. The goal is preservation, but it’s not always possible, he said.
The Lewes Junction Railroad and Bridge Association offered to maintain the bridge wherever it ends up. They proposed other potential locations for the bridge, including the Army Reserve center off Savannah Road, Cape Henlopen State Park, an area across from the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, and an area east of the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal but west of Freeman Highway.
Gary Wray, who co-founded the Fort Miles Historical Association, said his group has maintained steel and iron guns and equipment in Cape Henlopen State Park for many years. Wray, who’s also part of the Lewes Junction group, said there are many people ready and willing to take on maintenance of the bridge.
In addition to scouring around the bridge supports, the canal bank has significantly eroded, resulting in the loss of nearly 90 feet of the Board of Public Works’ outfall pipe.
State officials said the cost of repairing the bridge was estimated at about $3 million, which was too expensive, leading to the decommissioning of the railroad. A 210-foot section of rail between the library and the Lewes History Museum was preserved with the goal of creating a display to honor the railroad’s 144-year history in Lewes, an effort spearheaded by the Lewes Junction group.
Hastings said DelDOT is on a tight timeline, and a location must be chosen by the end of the year. The goal, he said, is to start the project to remove the bridge in the fall of 2020.
“We don’t necessarily need to get into all the details, but we need to know there’s an entity that will take it on, so we can start heading in the direction of putting plans in place to remove the bridge,” he said.