Delaware historians are fighting to preserve historic Cooch’s Bridge site

DelDOT's decision to address the site’s deficiencies has stirred concerns among residents regarding its historic value.

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Just a few hundred feet from I-95, water flows over the dam built in 1792 to power the mill at Cooch's Bridge near Newark, Delaware.

Just a few hundred feet from I-95, water flows over the dam built in 1792 to power the mill at Cooch's Bridge near Newark, Delaware. (Ann Ramsey/Friends of Cooch's Bridge)

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“Cooch’s Bridge is a unique site because of its social history of interest and importance, its agricultural history in the milling industry. It’s just not the battle,” said Richard Cooch, an eighth-generation member of the Cooch family.

The family’s namesake property south of Newark was the site of the only battle in the American Revolution fought on Delaware soil. In 2010, the family sold a portion of the property to the state in order to preserve its history.

“My family has for generations worked hard to preserve the area as best we can,” he said. “But the bottom line is that our family came to the conclusion that the site can be much better interpreted to the public if it was in public or state ownership rather than a private family trying to interpret it.”

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Even beyond the pivotal battle in 1777, the property remains rich in history. The site reveals an array of agricultural and social histories, highlighting the experiences of both free and enslaved families going back way before the revolution.

But as the surrounding area has developed more and more over the past few decades, concerns about safety for drivers and pedestrians have emerged, especially around the narrow bridge that crosses the Christina River adjacent to the property.

“DelDOT has identified… all three structures are right around 100 years old, give or take a few years, and it’s time for us to look at doing repair projects on bridges,” said Charles R. McLeod, the Delaware Department of Transportation’s director of community relations. “One of the issues we’re seeing with increased traffic, you know, we see more crashes.”

In early February and March, DelDOT organized two public hearings, with attendance ranging from 150 to 300 individuals, to discuss future plans for Cooch’s Bridge and to solicit public input for the proposed improvements. The project aims to improve the condition of a pair of bridges, enhance mobility for all users within the study area and reduce congestion.

Five road options for the site
Almost 150 residents joined the second public hearing hosted by the Delaware Department of Transportation to hear about the proposed development for Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site. (Johnny Perez-Gonzalez/WHYY)

As outlined in the presentation, the current bridges fall short of modern standards due in part to their narrow lanes and shoulders, structural concerns, safety features not meeting requirements and difficulties in managing traffic flow at intersections.

“We need to do more to bring these bridges up to current safety standards and address those long-standing issues not just up on the surface, but underneath as well. We’re starting to see the concrete bridges beginning to deteriorate,” McLeod said.

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While Cooch and others understand that change is inevitable and bound to happen, there is a growing recognition of the need to balance the safety of travelers with the historical significance of the site.

“There needs to be a balance between historic preservation and traffic and pedestrian safety. We hope that the state will take into account the needs of the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs,” Cooch said. “Many people hope that DelDOT will give serious consideration to closing off part of old Cooch’s Bridge Road that heads south from Cooch’s Bridge.”

DelDOT said there will be no road closure for this project.

During the initial public hearing, DelDOT outlined 12 alternatives for the studied area. Following discussions, seven of these options were not pursued for further study due to their inability to meet project needs and their substantial impact on resources.

The remaining five options vary from creating either a roundabout or a traditional T-intersection.

A public hearing concerning Cooch's Bridge
From an initial 12 road options for the historic site, only five have been taken into consideration after residents’ feedback. These alternatives may feature roundabouts or traditional T-intersections. (Johnny Perez-Gonzalez/WHYY)

Either way, the plans are raising concerns within the community and people like Vince Watchorn, president of the nonprofit Friends of Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site. The organization is dedicated to preserving the site, fostering public awareness, advocating for its conservation and advancing historical interpretations that delve into the lives, encounters and struggles of those connected to the site — whether as residents, visitors, casualties or combatants.

“The most important thing for the people in our community is that they want to be heard, many people have come up to me and almost all of them have said they’re never going to listen to me,” he said. “We’re really thinking deeply about public safety and how it can align with cultural environmental preservation.”

Although the project is still in its early stages, DelDOT aims to start development within the next four to five years.

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