The section of railroad that runs from Cool Spring to Lewes will be decommissioned, since it was determined that repairs to the swing bridge over the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal in Lewes would be too costly.
C.R. McLeod, Department of Transportation’s director of community relations, said the cost to repair the bridge would be more than $3 million.
“Decommissioning the existing rail line will also allow DelDOT to use the existing right of way for other transportation infrastructure purposes, which we estimate will save taxpayers more than $20 million,” McLeod said, adding DelDOT can now consider cost-saving alternatives for improving local roads along the rail right-of-way.
SPI Pharma, located just outside Cape Henlopen State Park, was the lone entity along the short stretch beyond the bridge that the railroad serves. Delaware Coast Line Railroad operates the railroad and had averaged two to three transports to SPI Pharma per month. The company has been trucking its product since the bridge was closed in September.
“We’ve met with SPI Pharma and Delaware Coast Line Railroad and informed them of our decision,” McLeod said. “DelDOT is grateful to DCLR and SPI Pharma for their understanding of our reasoning behind this decision, and we are committed to assisting both entities with any transportation-related needs they may have as a result of this decision.”
Lewes Mayor Ted Becker said there are still three railway cars at SPI Pharma, and they will have to be pushed back over the unstable bridge before the railroad is officially decommissioned. The bridge will be stabilized to accommodate one last use.
Use of the 100-year-old hand-cranked bridge was halted after it was discovered it had dropped 7 to 8 inches due to settlement of the structure in the canal below. Significant erosion has taken place in the canal bank around the bridge structure, which DelDOT believes will be remedied with the removal of the bridge. There is no timetable for the bridge’s removal.
When the train leaves town with the last three cars, it will end a 144-year history of railroad use in Lewes.
“The train has been an important part of our community in the past, and we’re sad to see it go,” Becker said.
According to an excerpt from Lewes historian Hazel Brittingham in the Journal of the Lewes Historical Society, the original bridge was constructed with arrival of the Junction and Breakwater rail line in Lewes in 1869. It was modernized in 1916 by the Pennsylvania Railroad due to a need for a moveable bridge when the canal was built. It was important at that time because of Fort Miles in modern day Cape Henlopen State Park as well as the menhaden industry along Lewes Beach. The bridge underwent a major reconstruction in 1997.
“DelDOT understands the historic nature of both the rail line and the bridge, and will work closely with the community to maintain as much historic integrity as possible along the corridor,” McLeod said. “[DelDOT is] also willing to explore options to preserve the bridge in an offsite location, should there be an opportunity to do so.”
It is not yet known if the railroad decommissioning will impact the planned rail with trail slated to run along the railroad from Lewes to Georgetown. A public workshop is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 17, to discuss the next phase, which will extend the trail 3.2 miles from Savannah Road, under the Route 1 Nassau bridge and beyond to Minos Conaway Road. Work is slated to begin in the fall of 2018.
The railroad shutdown also puts in question planned repairs at the Route 9 railroad crossing in Cool Spring. McLeod said no final decisions have been made just yet, but it is likely the repairs will not happen and the crossing will be removed.
“The expectation is that we will remove this crossing since it will no longer be part of an active rail line,” he said.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated with new information.