March 28, 2001

Plans to rebuild Smith Bridge so that it looks pretty much as it did in the late 1930s, when it was a rural covered bridge, were hailed as a good example of a public project being designed to blend function with history.

"It's not a restoration, but it's an excellent example of context-sensitive design," Joan Hazelton, chair of the historic roads and bridges unit of Preservation Delaware, told Delaforum. "They have gone to great lengths to listen carefully and come back to the community with something that the community wants."

She and about 25 residents of château country were all but totally supportive of a Delaware Department of Transportation proposal to, in effect, put the bridge back the way it was before an 

arson fire destroyed it on 'Mischief Night' in 1956. The plan was presented at a community meeting on Mar. 26.

As Delaforum previously reported, the new bridge is to be a single-lane span 15 feet wide and 12½ feet high. There would be no designated bicycle or pedestrian lane and the bridge floor would be wooden planks. About a third of the sides would be an open window. DelDOT also is proposing to redesign the curved approach on the west side to provide a longer line of sight, but has yielded to residents’ and dropped a proposal to install a traffic signal to control access. 

The present open bridge is a

successor to several covered bridges which have stood at the site, just south of the Delaware-

Composite photograph and drawing courtesy of DelDOT

A conceptual illustraation shows how the proposed covered Smith Bridge over the Brandywine would look.

Pennsylvania border, since the early 1800s. Ruins of a 19th Century mill are also there.

To come up with a conceptual design, DelDOT planners worked from sets of drawings dated 1936 and 1939.

Secretary of Transportation Nathan Hayward told the meeting that his department is anxious to move ahead with the project as quickly as possible. Following a final public hearing in May, design work and bidding can be completed in time for construction over a six-month period beginning in late 

spring or early summer, 2002, he said. By having the necessary material on hand and prefabricating as much as possible, actual closure of the crossing can be held to considerably less than that, he added.

DelDOT officials declined to estimate the cost of the new structure. Bridge builder Tony Zaya, whose firm intends to bid for the job, said that a similar bridge constructed a few years ago in Canada cost just over $1 million.

In addition to recreating a structure reasonably close to the span's historic appearance, Hayward said DelDOT is interested in coming up with a design that will enable motorists to cross the Brandywine but at a controlled pace. "Everybody in Delaware is talking about traffic calming. We want to design it in a way that as much as possible discourages

Nathan Hayward examines an album of Smith Bridge photos from times past.

traffic volume, especially that which travels at high speeds," he said.

The proposed bridge will not accommodate large trucks. Suitable signs will warn drivers of that before they approach the span and there will be turnaround room provided for those who get close.

Calvin Weber, project manager, acknowledged that DelDOT was venturing into unfamiliar territory by constructing a covered bridge. "I would be safe to say we're unfamiliar with this type of work. But you have a whole lot of people in the department paying close attention to it," he said.  It is believed that Delaware will join Vermont as the only states to build such a covered bridge as other than a tourist attraction in recent memory.

"From our standpoint, there would be definite advantage in building a two-lane [uncovered] bridge. But the consensus at our [previous] workshops and this advisory group is that the community wanted this to limit traffic on Smith Bridge Road," he said.

He said the bridge will probably be constructed of a bongassi, an especially hard wood from trees which grow in central Africa, to ward off graffiti, and have fire-resistant sides and roof.

© 2001. All rights reserved.

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