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New trail coming for entrance into Cape state park

September 7, 2018

An imposing pile of railroad ties stands alongside the former rail line near Freeman Highway in Lewes. It signals the next phase of the use of that stretch between the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal and the entrance to Cape Henlopen State Park.

“By next spring, I’m fairly certain that stretch will be paved and ready for trail use,” said Pat Cooper. Cooper oversees Sussex County’s state parks for Delaware’s Division of Parks.

The rails on the stretch have also been removed, all as part of a $4 million contract to remove the ties and rails from the rail line between Lewes and halfway to Georgetown.

According to Matt Chesser, administrator of planning for Division of Parks, the piece of the trail between the canal and the state park is a separate project being funded by the Division of Parks but being handled by DelDOT’s railroad section. He said it won’t extend all the way to the canal railroad bridge. Rather, it will intersect with American Legion Road, which will provide a connection to Savannah Road. But it will also extend a ways beyond American Legion Road before it ends at a turnaround point looking over the marsh between Freeman Highway and Savannah Road.

“We want to take it as close to the canal as possible and eventually put up some kind of observation platform,” said Chesser. “But DelDOT will be taking out the railroad bridge at some point, and we don’t want to build something now only to have to take it out for the bridge work. So the end of the trail near the bridge and the platform will be in a second phase.”

That promises to become a great location for storm watchers who like to see the marsh become a bay at high tide during nor’easters.

By piggybacking with the DelDOT project extending the rail trail several miles toward Georgetown, Chesser said all the work can be happening at once. “I expect the state park phase to be completed by late fall. And using the American Legion Road connection, it will eventually link with the DelDOT project providing new bicycle lanes along Savannah Road and the marsh. That will make a nice connection between Cape Henlopen State Park and downtown Lewes, and connect with the Gordons Pond Trail and downtown Rehoboth Beach. It will probably be the heaviest-used trail in the state.”

The Savannah Road work isn’t expected to begin until fall 2019.

There was a time when the railroad stretch for the new trail carried military equipment into Fort Miles, which occupied Cape Henlopen State Park property before it was a state park. The work is all part of the five decades’ worth of evolution of one of the busiest state parks along the East Coast.

Cooper said the 2018 season at the Cape Henlopen park and Sussex County’s other state parks has been good, but probably down a little from last year. “My instinct - and I’ve been at this a long time - is that camping was very strong. But overall attendance in the parks - probably because of lots of weekends with rain like the Labor Day weekend - was down a little in terms of daily entries into the parking lots. We’re looking forward to a good fall. The campgrounds at Cape and Delaware Seashore are open year-round, and we get campers whenever the weather is decent. And I expect we’ll be full at Cape until the middle of November - depending on weather. Meantime we’ll continuing planning, for next year and beyond. We’re always planning.”

Ocean pier an option

Cooper said a small working group at the parks division is focusing attention on the fishing pier in Cape Henlopen State Park. “At this point we’re just trying to maintain and keep it together for the next five years. If something happens to it, we won’t rebuild, unless of course political pressure makes us do something. But at this point we’re looking at options.”

He said one option is to stay the course and do nothing. “And then there are some who would like to see us build an ocean fishing pier. Romantic, I guess, and maybe better fishing. If we went that route, where would it be? The costs would be much higher, the environmental effects would be greater during construction and there would be an effect on surf fishing. But we have to look at all the options.

“The most logical option,” said Cooper, “would probably be to build a new one where the present one is, but sand keeps working in from the point and it would have to go out farther to get to deeper water and better fishing. But if we invest millions of dollars for a new pier, we would want it to be useful for fishing. All I can tell you is there are no decisions at this point.”

In the meantime, Cooper said, the main goal for the fishing pier is to keep it safe. “We’re required to have structural engineers look at it each spring, and from there we go forward based on what they tell us in terms of what needs to be done to keep it safe.”

  • Dennis Forney has been a journalist on the Delmarva Peninsula since 1972 and has been writing his Barefootin’ column for The Whale and then the Cape Gazette for more than 30 years. Contact Dennis at dennisforney@capegazette.com.