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Bridge Over Troubling Waters

There are a certain percentage of people who have Gephyrophobia , or the fear of bridges. If you are one of them, you can stop reading now. This post is not meant to frighten but it points to a dark, historical trend. Now that ye be warned, proceed at your own risk.

Photo: Ron Shawney

Heading south from Dewey into Bethany, you have only one direct means to get there by land– The Charles W. Cullen Bridge, better known as The Indian River Inlet Bridge.

Travel across it at dusk and you’re greeted by sunsets washed with breathtaking hues of orange and purple that eventually give way to twilight evenings that beckon a star-filled sky. As the sky darkens, the bridge comes to life with bursting rays of blue lights that travel up towards the heavens, illuminating the 152 cables supporting the bridge 249 feet above the churning waters of the inlet below. For the remaining hours until sunrise, the bridge becomes a cathedral of blue overlooking the Atlantic. But some of the prayers spoken while crossing this bridge lie at the heart of this story; prayers made in hopes of making it across the bridge alive.

The concerns are not based on the current construction of the bridge. The 2,600 foot cable-stayed bridge is designed to last 100 years. It’s even equipped with a fiber optic system that continuously monitors its structural integrity as well as bypass systems to pump sand to the northern shore to prevent erosion. The concerns stem back to the first incarnation of the bridge in 1934 and each tragic –some say cursed- reincarnations of the four that followed.

The Indian River Outlet was a natural waterway that snaked along a two mile stretch of the coast. For nearly a decade it was dredged to replenish the beach as well as keep the waterway navigable for boats. As the 20th century evolved, automobiles became more frequent and were driven by a growing population with an increasing interest in the resort towns planted along the seashore. In 1933, the Ocean Highway (present day Route 1 and known as Coastal Highway) provided travel to these parts, but was cut off from both sides by the inlet. Five years later, the US Army Corps of Engineers built jetties to sustain the inlet and allow for a bridge to span the waterway, thus connecting the highway.

The first bridge went up within a year of the jetties. The turbulent waters and fast paced currents quickly scoured the pylons of the creosote timber trestle bridge and within five years, had all but washed it away from history.

Photo: Courtesy/DelDOT

May of 1940 brought about the second carnation of the bridge; this time built of huge slabs of concrete and hardened steel. Considerably stronger than its predecessor, the swing bridge once again connected the growing droves of travelers with the beach communities and surrounding areas. The inlet, seemingly unimpressed by the newer bridge, refused to give quarter.

Five young men employed by the Electric Company of Philadelphia were traveling along the bridge on February 10, 1948. An exceptionally high tide coupled with a strong easterly wind seemed hell bent on pushing large flows of ice through the inlet. The ice gnashed and drove against the struggling pilings while a churning undercurrent ravaged below at its foundation, scouring away sediment holding them in place. Just as the workers crossed the southward approach, a 60 foot section of the bridge buckled under the jamming ice causing their vehicles to plummet into the inlet below.

Pasquale Capone and his truck were the first to careen into the icy waters that immediately began devouring the vehicle. His four coworkers were just as unlucky as their car followed suit. They scrambled from the wreckage, discarding the car in a desperate attempt to save their friend. The surrounding ice flow relentlessly pushed onward towards the mouth of the Atlantic. The huge chunks of mangled concrete clashed among the unstoppable shards of cantankerous ice quickly swallowing him as he tried to escape the cab of his truck. He was never seen again.

Photo: Courtesy/ Delaware Public Archives

Now trapped within the same icy deathtrap, his fellow workers found themselves fighting for their own lives. 27 year old Benjamin Wagamon, Jr. was pulled from the ice but died shortly after of exposure while in the distance, John D. Adams of Berlin, Md. drowned. William Osada and James Clark were plucked from the inlet and sent to Milford Memorial Hospital where they would live to recall the tragedy for the rest of their lives.

Photo: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Four years would pass before engineers would try to harness the inlet once more.

Like the bridge before, it was constructed of concrete and steel. It was even named after Charles West Cullen like the previous bridge. It was as if the State chose not to acknowledge what had gone before and looked to blot out the ongoing struggles that prevented the connection of the two reaching roadways. But ignoring a thing does not make it go away. And in 1962, the Great Storm of the Atlantic would remind us of that. The storm would sit on the coastline for a record 5 days until shifting back out into the Atlantic. In its wake, the third incarnation of the bridge lay crippled from scouring, ice flow and damage from one of the greatest storms to ever hit the east coast.

Photo: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

It took three years to complete the fourth bridge. This bridge would be constructed as a steel girder bridge meant to outlast all those that had gone before it. This time, they would add an additional span to the bridge. The newer span would carry the southbound traffic, leaving the original span to continue handle the northbound traffic. By 1976, it had withstood the pounding of storms and fast moving inlet waters. Beach-goers and vacationers were reaching an all-time high so a second span was added to accommodate the heavier flow of traffic. The local economy saw boosts and people were thrilled to have the direct route into Bethany and the points beyond. The bridge was connecting people with places and the area thrived. Each day, the colorful sunsets and sunrises greeted bridge travelers with all its majesty.

But below the bridge, under the surface of the inlet waters, a battle continued to be waged.

Graphic: Brian Dawson

Scouring is the process where swiftly moving water removes sediment from around the abutments and pilings of bridge supports. It’s one of the main causes of bridge failures. In the case of the inlet, the area running under the bridge creates a funnel shape that rapidly pushes the current through- much like if you were to cover your thumb over a garden hose, creating an increase in pressure.

The US Army Corp of Engineers presented the State with sobering news in 1980. There was indisputable evidence that the bridge was losing the battle against the scouring effects and it was feared that if a severe storm event were to occur, the bridge would collapse. The scouring had become so bad, Army divers were able to swim completely under one of the footings. In 1989, the bridge was declared “structurally deficient” even though travel would continue crossing well into the next century.

2005 presented Delaware’s Department of Transportation (DelDOT) with a harsh reality. Reports piled in from research and engineering firms, all heralding the same outcome. All signs pointed to a bridge failure occurring within three to eight years. With upwards of 28,000 cars crossing the Indian River Inlet Bridge every day, DelDOT knew it had to act fast or risk repeating the 1948 tragedy on an unimaginable scale. Out of a sea of ongoing budget cuts, contract bidding and redrafts, the plans for the fifth and current bridge rose; this time in the form of a cable-stayed bridge.

True to its history, the inlet resisted any effort to tame it. The initial construction began in early 2006 and by the fall of the same year, the construction ramps had noticeably moved and were unstable. One worker likened the ramps stability to "setting a brick on a bowl of Jello". Within a year, the project was scrapped. As the construction vehicles and workers packed their things, they could feel the icy stare of the rushing inlet waters as they flowed by defiantly in the background.

Photo: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In August of 2008, planning began to revitalize the project and build an even longer spanned cable-stayed bridge. This design would eliminate any pylons or piers in the water, thereby avoiding the assault of scouring. By December of 2009, the approach foundations and edge girder construction had begun. Almost a year after the first test pylons had been struck, the cement pouring for the bridge deck was underway. Form traveling rigs were especially designed for this project. They would travel along the ever-growing spans from both ends pouring concrete until eventually meeting in the middle. The phases of construction were moving at a steady pace and federal funding in the amount of $1.79 million for pathways kept everything firing on all cylinders.

Earlier in the year public voting had taken place to discuss the aesthetics of the bridge. The public voted on the color of the cables and the nautical themed lighting that would decorate the bridge walkways. Even the slant of the railings had been taken into consideration. As if to retaliate for being excluded, the inlet was determined to be heard. A fire broke out in February of 2011 on the north side of the bridge construction. It was a minor setback resulting in no injuries or damages. Still others claimed it was the spirits of the electric workers from the 1948 collapse exacting revenge.

Finally, on January 20, 2012, the first car crossed the southbound lanes of the bridge carrying Delaware Governor Jack Markell, Senator Tom Carper and DelDOT Secretary Shailen Bhatt. Ten days later, one of the northbound lanes opened. On May 6, the Charles W. Cullen Bridge was officially dedicated in a public ceremony, including a public bridge walk and the opening of all lanes and pedestrian walkways.

It took 78 years to finally master the 900 foot span of the inlet at the cost of five bridges and hundreds of millions of dollars. The immediate area now includes connector roads leading to the Delaware Seashore State Park, campgrounds, bike paths and more. The recent addition of the Big Chill Beach Club attracts even more visitors and an opportunity to properly take in the inlet, bridge and Atlantic Ocean all from one vantage point.

For the time being, it seems man and the inlet have come to a truce, enjoying each other’s company through a mutual respect of sorts. The Charles W. Cullen Bridge is projected to last over one hundred years, which would serve as a respectable treaty.

But there are no misgivings that nature always has- and always will- continue to have final say in the ongoing interactions of man and his attempts to construct his legacies. Time and time again, it has proven whatever we can build, nature can wipe away.


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