The Chesapeake & Delaware Canal is a 14-mile sea-level ship canal that connects the Chesapeake Bay with the Delaware River in Maryland and Delaware. It opened in 1829 with a uniform depth of 10 feet and a width of 66 feet. It includes six major automobile and railroad crossings
The earliest bridges included an existing covered bridge at Summit and three wooden swing bridges but these were rendered obsolete and hindrances with the advent of larger and deeper-draft vessels. Work to convert the lock canal into a sea-level operation began in the mid-1920s, which included relocating the eastern entrance of the canal to Reedy Point, Delaware, adding two stone jetties at Reedy Point, removing all of the locks, deepening and enlarging the canal, and replacing all of the bridges with five vertical lift spans. The new canal, with a uniform depth of 12 feet and a width of 90 feet, opened in May 1927.
Even after the new sea-level canal opened, plans were already underway for further expansion as the sizes of ships that flowed through continued to increase. Between 1935 and 1938, the canal was enlarged to a uniform depth of 27 feet and a width of 250 feet.
The dramatic growth in traffic along the canal soon outpaced capacity, with accidents and one-way traffic restrictions further straining the canal’s capabilities. Between 1938 and 1950, eight ships had collided with bridges causing catastrophic failures and fatalities. In 1954, the United States Congress authorized an expansion of the canal channel to a uniform depth of 35 feet and a width of 450 feet, with the improvements taking place between 1962 and 1968.
Below is a listing of the six major bridges of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal west to east.
Historically, two bridges connected the two halves of Chesapeake City, Maryland across Back Creek. The enlargement and conversion of the canal into a sea-level operation in the 1920s required the construction of new lift bridges, and a Pratt through lift truss was constructed in 1924-26 by the Phoenix Bridge Company.
At 11:30 AM on July 29, 1942, the Frank Klassen, an empty oil tanker being escorted by three tug boats, struck the south pier of the lift bridge causing the south tower to crash down across her bow. The remainder of the bridge fell into the canal. The incident was blamed on the difference in tide fluctuations between the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware River which set up treacherous currents through the canal.
Ferry service between the two halves of Chesapeake City was put into place. Preliminary studies began on the bridge’s replacement and a high-level crossing was preferred. It was proposed that the new bridge be the first link in a proposed four-lane Eastern Shore Highway between Elkton and Maryland.
Work on the new bridge began in 1947 and the new Chesapeake City Bridge opened to traffic on September 21, 1949.
Further east, the Summit Bridge carries US Route 301 and DE Route 896 over the canal in New Castle County, Delaware. The first bridge at Summit was constructed before the canal was routed through the community which was replaced with a draw bridge in 1867.
A Pratt through vertical lift bridge was constructed at the cost of $460,000 and dedicated in August 1926. It was closed to all traffic after a landslide on the north bank threatened the stability of the crossing on February 12, 1949. Significant cracks in the base of the north abutment were discovered during a more detailed inspection and it was feared that the superstructure of the bridge could fail. It was decided to repair the structure and the bridge reopened in May.
In 1950, Senator Frear introduced a bill calling for the construction of a four-lane, high-level bridge to replace the lift structure, a move that was supported by Governor Carvel and the state highway department. Work on the new bridge began in 1957 and the new Summit Bridge opened to traffic on January 9, 1960.
Nearby is the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal Railroad Bridge which carries the Delmarva Central Railroad over the canal.
The Delaware Railroad was conceived in 1836 to serve the Delmarva Peninsula, although the economic depression of 1837-39 prevented investment in the line until 1848 when the charter was renewed. Sufficient financings allowed a line to be built from the New Castle & Frenchtown Railroad in Porter to Dover by 1855, which included the erection of a swing iron girder bridge over the canal in 1852.
The swing bridge was augmented with a vertical lift bridge during the enlargement and conversion of the canal into a sea-level operation in the 1920s. The old swing span was left in place but rendered inoperable.
A new bridge over the canal was required when a sharp curve was removed during its widening in the 1960s. A vertical lift structure, designed by constructed by Howard, Needles, Tammen & Bergendoff of Philadelphia, was built by the Ingalls Iron Works of Birmingham, Alabama in 1963-66. When it opened in September 1966, the new lift bridge was the third largest of its type in the world.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) presented its “most beautiful bridge” award to the Pennsylvania Railroad (the successor to the Delaware Railroad) at a dinner-meeting in March 1967. The ASCE previously awarded similar awards to other canal crossings at Chesapeake City, Maryland in 1949 and at Summit in 1960.
St. Georges Bridge, a steel arch bridge, carries the US Route 13 over the canal. The first crossing of the canal at St. Georges was a wooden swing bridge constructed circa 1829. The enlargement and conversion of the canal into a sea-level operation in the 1920s required the construction of a new lift bridge at St. Georges, which opened to traffic in March 1929.
At 8 AM on January 10, 1939, the S.S. Waukeegan freight vessel, sailing free with broken steering gear, rammed into the northern pier of the lift bridge that caused the structure to collapse. Two bridge tenders were killed.
Preliminary studies began on the St. Georges Bridge’s replacement and a high-level crossing was preferred. The engineering firm of Parsons, Klapp, Brinckerhoff & Douglas of New York designed a tied arch span over the canal to provide sufficient horizontal clearance for the largest of the ships that utilized the waterway at the time. Construction of the crossing replacement began in July 1940 which involved included Penker Construction Company for the substructure; Phoenix Bridge Company for the steel arch erection; George & Lynch for the approaches; and Corbetta Construction for the concrete decks.
The new St. Georges Bridge was completed at the cost of $2.5 million and opened on January 31, 1942. It featured the world’s longest steel tied arch at the time of its completion.
Adjacent to the St. Georges Bridge is the Roth Bridge, which carries the DE Route 1 freeway over the canal.
High-speed highways were long proposed to connect Wilmington (and later the Delaware Memorial Bridge) and the Delmarva Peninsula. Provisions were made with the construction of the two-lane Chesapeake City Bridge in the late 1980s that a four-lane Eastern Shore Highway between Elkton and Maryland would eventually be built, necessitating the construction of a parallel crossing. The highway never came to fruition. Likewise, the Summit Bridge was proposed to be an integral part of a proposed expressway between the Delaware Memorial Bridge and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The expressway was never completed.
Other proposals, including an attempt to build a north-south extension of the Delaware Turnpike and two attempts to secure funding to build an interstate highway, also failed. Eventually, the state settled on building a toll road between Wilmington and Dover in 1985. Coined as the US Route 13 “Relief Route”, construction began in early 1990 near Smyrna and the last section was completed in May 2003. It was designated DE Route 1.
Integral to the Relief Route was the construction of a bridge over the canal. The construction contract for the substructure and superstructure was awarded in April 1992 and the new six-lane cable-stayed suspension bridge opened in December 1995.
The easternmost crossing of the canal is the Reedy Point Bridge, which carries DE Route 9 over the canal near Delaware City.
The earliest crossing at the eastern entrance to the canal was a swing bridge along 5th Street in Delaware City. The enlargement and conversion of the canal into a sea-level operation in the 1920s required the construction of new lift bridges, which involved the relocation of the canal south of Delaware City. A Pratt through truss was constructed in 1924-26.
In 1962, the Corps suggested the closure and demolition of the Reedy Point Bridge as part of a project to modernize and widen the canal. Ultimately, it was decided to construct a new two-lane high-level crossing over the waterway.
Construction on the substructure for the new Reedy Point Bridge began in December 1965, and superstructure erection followed in October 1966. The new crossing, which included a total length of 10,000 feet, a channel span of 600 feet, two anchor spans of 300 feet each, and a vertical clearance of 135 feet for vessels, was dedicated in November 1968.