Riding the rails in coastal Sussex

Unique train has century-old swing bridge to cross
October 9, 2015

Not many rail workers in the country have to stop their train, get out and hand crank a swing bridge to cross a waterway. That is the case for the unique short-line Delaware Coast Line Railroad operating between Georgetown and Lewes.

About every two weeks, a train crosses the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal on the 100-year-old bridge to make deliveries or pick up rail cars at the SPI Pharma factory at the end of the line near Cape Henlopen State Park. SPI Pharma, headquartered in Wilmington with manufacturing plants in Lewes and Grand Haven, Mich., specializes in chemical components for antacids.

According to postings on Railway Preservation News, the Lewes hand-crank bridge may be the last one still in operation in the United States.

When the crew exits the train at the Gills Neck Road crossing to unlock the gate and crank out the bridge, it becomes an event that attracts anyone who happens to be in the area who stops to watch and take photographs and videos.

It takes about 20 turns to line the bridge up with the tracks. After the delivery to SPI Pharma is complete, the train pulls back across the bridge, stops on the other side of the road and the process is repeated as the crew cranks in the bridge. The rail cars are then transported to a Norfolk Southern train in Georgetown.

Wearing a lot of different hats

The rail line has a long history with a rebirth that started when a group of private investors led by the late Mike Herholdt of Milford purchased it in 1981. The move came after Conrail had announced it was planning to abandon two little-used rail lines in Sussex County. Mike's son, Dan Herholdt, is now the railroad's general manager. He shares the same love of railroads that his father had.

The 7-mile line from Ellendale to Milton and the 18-mile line from Georgetown to Lewes were purchased by the state of Delaware to preserve the right of way. Delaware Coast has a contract with the state to use the rails.

Operations began in 1982 on the Ellendale-to-Milton line to the former Draper cannery. Other customers were added and service soon started on the Georgetown-to-Lewes line.

Herholdt, who was his father's first employee, says the local railroad is the last remaining short-line railroad in Delaware that consistently hauls freight. Short-line railroads are of particular interest to railroad buffs. Herholdt said it's not unusual to see people standing by the tracks taking photographs of the Delaware Coast Line train.

Delaware Coast hauls about 550 cars per year with more projected in the future due to an increasing demand for propane, Herholdt said. He currently serves two Sussex companies with bulk propane deliveries with a third starting soon. Among other commodities, the railroad hauls dry distiller's grain, an ingredient in chicken feed, for Mountaire on the Lewes line. The lone customer on the Milton line is a propane distributor.

Herholdt, who is also general manager of his family's electrical business Satterfield and Ryan in Milford, said additional contract work – including inspections and maintenance – allows him to keep the railroad afloat with eight employees. His crew not only operates the train, but also maintains the rail line. “We all wear a lot of different hats,” he said.

The railroad operates out of its shop in the Sussex County industrial park in Georgetown. It's there that Delaware Coast employees do maintenance and repairs.

Rail history starts with Queen Anne's Railroad

The rail line was once part of the Queen Anne's Railroad, which began service between Queenstown, Md., and Lewes in 1894, and extended its service to Love Point, Md., in 1902. The railroad changed hands and was part of the Maryland, Delaware and Virginia Railway Co. in 1905 and then consolidated to form the Baltimore and Eastern Railroad in 1923.

As cars became popular on the Eastern Shore, passenger service on the B&E was discontinued in October 1931.

On the Queen Anne's Railroad it was possible – using a ferry – to travel from Lewes to Love Point, Md., and board a ferry to Baltimore. The railroad also offered a connection to Cape May, N.J., via ferry. Future plans for the railroad included a line to Rehoboth Beach, but financial problems forced the railroad to go bankrupt in 1904.

But that wasn't the end of Queen Anne's Railroad. The Queen Anne's Royal Zephyr Dinner Train operated out of a small depot off Kings Highway in Lewes offering rides to Harbeson and back. The dinner and murder mystery train was a popular tourist attraction for nearly a decade.

Delaware Coast Line Railroad incorporated in June 1982 and began operating the Georgetown-Lewes and Ellendale-Milton segments of the former Queen Anne's Railroad.


Part 2: Riding the rails – a photo essay.