St. Georges Bridge, a steel arch bridge, carries the US Route 13 over the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal in St. Georges, Delaware.
Chesapeake & Delaware Canal History
A survey of possible water routes across the Delmarva Peninsula was conducted in 1764 as a way to shorten the shipping distance by nearly 300 miles between Baltimore and Philadelphia. Such a canal would include 14 locks to connect the Elk River at Welch Point, Maryland and the Christina River in Delaware. Construction was halted in 1806 over a lack of funds. 3 4
The canal company was reorganized in 1822 and new surveys determined that more than $2 million in funding would be required to resume construction. 3 4 The states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware purchased $175,000 in stock, while the federal government invested $450,000. The remainder was subscribed by the public.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provided two senior officers to help determine a canal route, advising a route with four locks extending from the Back Creek Branch of the Elk River in Maryland to Newbold’s Landing Harbor (today’s Delaware City) in Delaware. Canal construction resumed in April 1824 and the new Chesapeake & Delaware Canal opened to marine traffic in 1829 at the cost of $3.5 million. 2 3 4 The new 14-mile waterway featured a uniform depth of 10 feet and a width of 66 feet. Crossings of the canal included a covered bridge at Summit and three wooden swing bridges.
The advent of larger and deeper-draft vessels could not pass through the restricting locks by the turn of the 20th century. 3 4 Coupled with the advent of the New Castle & Frenchtown Railroad, traffic along the canal began to decline which brought a downward trend in profits for the canal operators who gave little thought to enlarging and deepening the canal until President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a commission in 1906 to report on the feasibility of converting the canal into a larger—and free waterway.
The Chesapeake & Delaware Canal was acquired by the federal government for $2.5 million, which included six bridges plus a railroad crossing owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad. 3 Responsibility for operating and maintaining the canal was assigned to the Corps Wilmington District.
Work to convert the canal into a sea-level operation began in the mid-1920s with a projected cost of $10 million. 3 4 It 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. The Philadelphia District took over operation of the canal in 1933, and between 1935 and 1938, the canal was enlarged to a uniform depth of 27 feet and a width of 250 feet at the cost of $13 million. 3 4 The project also included expanding the federal navigation channel in the Upper Chesapeake Bay for 26 miles from the Elk River to Pooles Island to a depth of 27 feet and a width of 400 feet.
The dramatic growth in traffic along the C&D Canal soon outpaced capacity, with accidents and one-way traffic restrictions further straining the canal’s capabilities. 3 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. 1 4
St. Georges Bridge History
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 new lift bridges. A Pratt through truss was constructed in 1924-29 by the Phoenix Bridge Company, which featured a length of 450 feet, a main span of 205 feet, 138-feet of vertical clearance for vessels, and a roadway deck of 24 feet. 9 The new St. Georges Bridge 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. 7 8 12 A bridge tender, Robert Quinn, was killed when the control room he was manning collapsed. 8 A federal inspector, William Oakes, was thrown clear of the control room and rescued by a rowboat from the Waukegan after clinging to the partly submerged bridge for 20 minutes. He later died in the hospital. 7 10
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. 7 Construction of the crossing replacement began in July 1940. 6 7 The builders 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. 7
The new St. Georges Bridge was completed at the cost of $2.5 million and opened on January 31, 1942. 6 7 12 A small dedication ceremony officiated by Governor Walter Bacon, with just 100 in attendance, took just five minutes because of concerns from the War Department over large gatherings. 5 7 A motorcade then led a round trip over the bridge led by Governor Bacon, Col. H.B. Vaughhan, Corps engineer for the district, and Frank V. duPont, chairman of the highway commission, passing by soldiers with bayonetted rifles patrolled the main span and two sandbagged shelters were perched at the top of the bridge. 7 Whistles on two tugboats, an army engineer tender, and a cargo ship plying the canal sounded a salute as the cars made their way over the main span of the bridge.
St. Georges Bridge featured the world’s longest steel tied arch at the time of its completion. 7
In the 1980s, a limited-access relief route for US Route 13 was proposed between Dover and Wilmington to relieve that route of seasonal beach traffic. The proposed route later became DE Route 1 and the new tolled freeway opened in stages between 1991 and 2003 at the cost of $900 million. It included the construction of the six-lane Roth Bridge over the canal at St. Georges in 1997.
Not wanting to maintain two crossings at St. Georges, the Corps planned to close St. Georges Bridge to all traffic on July 18, 12 and demolish it at the cost of $20.7 million. 12 The Corps detailed alternatives were discussed, including a minor renovation of the bridge that would cost $5.7 million; a more extensive renovation at $27.7 million; a full renovation at $35 million; and the conversion of the bridge for non-vehicular use at $25 million.
The proposal to remove the bridge gathered much local and political opposition. Additionally, a state transportation report concluded that if the St. Georges Bridge was removed, the new Roth Bridge would be overburdened with local and through traffic within a decade because of burgeoning population growth in the area. 13 The Corps was ultimately prevented from pursuing any plans to demolish the bridge through Congressional legislation.
To alleviate concerns about rust and lead paint flaking from the bridge, the Corps spent $10 million to have the bridge painted between September and December 2001. 13 Structural deterioration of the superstructure led the Corps to impose a 15-ton weight restriction on the crossing on May 27, 2008. 14 Work to repair cracked and corroded bearings and piers began in August and in August 2009 at the cost of $2.3 million. 14 15 To preserve the crossing from any further structural deterioration, the weight restrictions were left in place.
The roadway deck was rehabilitated in 2010. 16 When the crossing reopened, it was reconfigured to carry one lane of automobile traffic and one lane of bicycle traffic in each direction as much of the regional traffic had been diverted to Roth Bridge after the addition of two interchanges on the tolled DE Route 1 freeway that allowed through and truck US Route 13 traffic to bypass St. Georges Bridge toll-free.
The floor beams that supported the deck were replaced in 2019. 17
- State: Delaware
- Route: US Route 13
- Type: Steel Arch
- Status: Active - Automobile
- Total Length: 4,209 feet
- Main Span Length: 540 feet
- Total Height: 136 feet
- Navigational Clearance:
- “Chesapeake and Delaware Canal: Navigating the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.” BlueSeas, 2015.
- Appletons’ annual cyclopedia and register of important events of the year: 1862. New York: D. Appleton & Company. 1863. p. 378.
- “The Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
- “C&D Canal Just a Dream 307 Years Ago.” Evening Journal [Wilmington], 30 Nov. 1961, p. 33.
- “Opening of St. Georges Bridge To Be Informal.” Morning News [Wilmington], 1 Jan. 1942, p. 5.
- “New Canal Span to be Opened Saturday; Cost $2,500,000.” News Journal [Wilimgton], 29 Jan. 1942, p. 1.
- “St. Georges Bridge Opened; Bacon First to Cross Span.” News Journal [Wilmington], 31 Jan. 1942, pp. 1-10.
- “Ship Wrecks Canal Span; One Killed.” News Journal [Wilmington], 10 Jan. 1939, pp. 1-10.
- “Canal Bridge Cost $500,000; Opened in 1926.” News Journal [Wilmington], 10 Jan. 1939, pp. 1-10.
- “Work Begins On Clearing Wreckage of Canal Bridge.” News Journal [Wilmington], 11 Jan. 1939, p. 1.
- Montgomery, Jeff. “Engineers will own canal span.” News Journal [Wilmington], 5 Jan. 1995, p. B1.
- Billington, Mike. “St. Georges sees its demise at bridge’s end.” News Journal [Wilmington], 25 May 1997, pp. A1-A19.
- O’Sullivan, Sean. “Battle over bridges unsettled.” News Journal [Wilmington], 6 Jul. 2002, pp. A1-A5.
- Harlow, Summer. “St. Georges Bridge to be fixed.” News Journal [Wilmington], 24 May 2008, pp. B1-B2.
- “All lanes reopened on St. Georges Bridge.” News Journal [Wilmington], 8 Aug. 2009, p. B3.
- “St. Georges Bridge reopens with fixed deck, bike lane.” News Journal [Wilmington], 8 Jul. 2010, p. B3.
- Smith, Jerry. “Del. 1 drivers: Less than 3 weeks until St. Georges Bridge reopens.” News Journal [Wilmington], 13 Jan. 2019, p. A2.