After months of planning and meetings, members of the Lewes Junction Railroad and Bridge Association are moving forward with plans aimed at preserving Lewes’ railroad history, which dates back to the 1850s.
During an informational meeting Sept. 11, the association and state transportation officials announced plans for the removal and relocation of the historic Lewes-Rehoboth Canal railroad swing bridge, which was decommissioned in early 2017 when it was determined that repairs and ongoing maintenance for it would be too costly.
November is target date
John Stevens, a design engineer with Delaware Department of Transportation consultant T-Y-Lin, said a contract for the $2.2 million project has been awarded to Richard E. Pierson Construction Co. He said the company is expected to begin work in November with completion projected in March or April 2022. The 230-ton bridge will be removed and transported to a site at the end of American Legion Road adjacent to the trail to Cape Henlopen State Park.
The project also includes removal of the embankment on the beach side of the canal, and construction of a trailhead and fishing area at the end of the trail along the canal side.
Removal of the embankment will not only widen the canal, but also eliminate the dangerous currents caused by the narrowing of the channel there, Stevens said.
DelDOT will coordinate the project; the City of Lewes will own the bridge and the association will maintain it.
Stevens said DelDOT officials are planning to install information kiosks at the new bridge site and along Gills Neck Road.
Rail cars part of display
The association also has plans for a Lewes Junction Railroad exhibit behind the Lewes Public Library on a 210-foot section of rails left when the railway was removed to make way for the Lewes-to-Georgetown Trail. The section will be used to display railroad cars, including a restored Delaware Coast Line Railroad caboose the association plans to purchase. It was on the final train operating in Lewes on Dec. 15, 2017.
Association member Rich McGreal said the group is also looking to purchase a steam engine and tender, and possibly a passenger car in the future.
Association Secretary Gary Wray said a grant from Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, will help fund the purchase of the caboose, signage and bike racks.
Replica station and art projects
The association has other work planned in conjunction with the swing bridge and rail car exhibit area. The Lewes Junction Library Arts Project will consist of two separate projects highlighted by a replica Lewes Junction Railroad Station.
The replica station will enclose an area housing an emergency generator and transformer behind the library adjacent to the Lewes-to-Georgetown Trail. This phase also includes construction of a book wall.
Phase 2 will include a series of murals around the enclosure with artwork depicting classic children’s books.
The art project is a collaboration with Lewes Public Library and Art in Bloom. McGreal said Schell Brothers will donate construction of the station, book wall and courtyard. Lewes library will own and maintain the enclosure and surrounding area, he said.
Bridge dates back to 1916
The swing bridge, one of the last remaining hand-crank railroad bridges in the country, was shut down Sept. 16, 2016, when a crack in one of the piers was discovered. An underwater inspection four days later revealed that one pier was 8 inches lower than the others and was still sinking.
In early 2017, it was determined that the cost to repair and maintain the bridge was too high.
Stevens said the association contacted DelDOT officials with a plan to save the historic bridge built in 1916 as part of the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal project.
Over the years, trains have used the rail line to service the menhaden fish factories, Cape Henlopen State Park, Fort Miles and, more recently, SPI Pharma.
How about one more swing?
DelDOT’s Craig Stevens said the contractor will determine how the bridge will be moved to its new location, about 1,000 feet from the canal.
Association board member David Ludlow asked Stevens if it was feasible to hand-crank and swing the bridge out one more time for posterity’s sake.
Stevens said it’s possible but would be up to the contractor to grant permission. “It’s not in the plans, but we can find out if the contractor is willing to do that,” he said.