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Junction & Breakwater Trail: connecting cities in Delaware

Most trails have long tales of hard work, good luck, and heartbreak behind them. Here is a story of persistence and commitment in creating a major trail through a difficult environment.

By Susan Moerschel

Map of Delaware

As I reflected recently on my twenty-three and a half years with Delaware State Parks, a thought really hit me: for three-quarters of my career, I have been involved with the creation of the Junction & Breakwater Trail. The route to create the trail was long and indirect, but 3.9 miles are now complete between Lewes and Rehoboth.

photo: a couple walking a trail
 

The trail runs along the rail line that once brought resort-goers to the Methodist Camps along the Atlantic Coast. As I walk the deeply shaded trail and draw in a deep breath, I smell pine and recall fond memories from family camping trips. I never gave up hope that the trail would be built simply because it was the right thing to build, in the perfect place.

The idea of the trail was noted in a 1974 study, and a 1980 plan recommended the route along the Penn Central rail line stating ominously that it "would be the easiest to construct and would have the least environmental impact, but... would require right-of-way acquisition from private owners." Nor was our Department of Transportation (DelDOT), which conducted both studies, yet in the business of creating bike and pedestrian facilities. And finally, there was neither the interest not the funding to justify land purchases by DelDOT or my Department.

Next scene is the late 1980's: enter a young, energetic State Legislator who earmarks funds in DelDOT's budget for, you guessed it, another study on the bike route. Funds sit; DelDOT does nothing.

Enter young, eager State Parks Planner: me. Through much red tape, I am successful in transferring those funds to our Division for the study, which proposed two alternatives: the rail corridor and a boardwalk alignment. As the freshman legislator held town meetings with constituents he began to have second thoughts about the rail trail when a few local land owners opposed it.

Soon the legislator himself was saying that he, "never supported the rail trail and never wanted this study." The message bounced around my brain. How could he say this? This was my first exposure to a blatant twist of the truth. Naive, I was appalled and compelled to give up.

Then the unthinkable occurred. Local paper headlines broadcast, "Boardwalk proposed: Schroeder envisions one from Rehoboth to Lewes." These headlines, an article, and a very large photo of the legislator walking, in business dress, through a dune field made my heart sink.

The study, however, recommended the rail trail alignment over the boardwalk route, citing funding and environmental concerns. At the public meeting I recall one man saying the trail would be an ideal place to exercise. Others supported it as a way to protect valuable coastal resources. But folks who lived along the abandoned rail line objected loudly. Hence the chilly headline on the day following the meeting, "Lewes-Rehoboth Bike Path Gets Cool Reception."

After three different covers, the study was never released. But, that's another story. As this saga continued, I wondered what could possibly happen next. Though the project again sat, people across the state asked when we were going to build the rail trail.

As property values at the beach continued to rise, traffic grew too, as did the use of bicycles in the region. Our agency now had access to a steady and reliable source of land protection funds and a very long list of projects. Land purchases along the rail line had to wait their turn. Speaking to trail supporters, I impressed upon them the need to purchase land before it was devoured by sprawl. It was the trail's local supporters that convinced our Division's managers to protect lands between Lewes and Rehoboth, sooner rather than later.

Two stream corridors, wetlands, forests and fields, a few miles of that old Penn Central line and a 1938 railroad bridge were all part of the 1,500 acres now preserved. When Governor Minner announced our land protection successes, she said a trail would be built and it would be built of stone. This settled our staff disagreement on the type of trail surface. The press reported those new facts and my dream of a rail trail was one more step closer to reality.

Fast forward to 2003, a chilly November day. Phase I of the dream was complete. In the middle of the trail, next to Lt. Governor Carney, stood folks who were once opposed, long-time trail supporters, new and former legislators, construction managers, and trail users. Someone remarked that day that trail users are friendly and warm. Imagine that! That's quite a difference from the long-ago worries of bad trouble on trails and bad things happening to neighborhoods near the trail.

The Junction & Breakwater Trail, named for the train that transported early visitors seeking out the coast, has new travelers: runners, moms pushing strollers, walkers, and bicyclists. It's a popular place, and its first summer season as a new trail is upon us. My father, who rarely inquires about my work, asked recently, "will the trail go further?" Yes, it will! We're working on it.

Susan Moerschel is the Manager, Park Resource Office, Division of Parks & Recreation for Delaware Dept. of Natural Resources & Environmental Control.

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