Delaware News Journal reports on DelDOT Public Workshop

DelDOT’s proposing changes near Cooch’s Bridge site. Residents pack the house.

Molly McVety
Delaware News Journal
February 8, 2024

Taking the scenic route around one of Delaware’s most historic areas could look a little different in a few years.

Delaware’s Department of Transportation held a public workshop at Glasgow High School on Wednesday, Feb. 6, to discuss improvements that could be made to the intersection of Old Baltimore Pike and Cooch’s Bridge Road near Glasgow and Iron Hill.

Nearly 300 individuals showed up to a packed Glasgow High School cafeteria, where more than 30 boards were displayed with project proposals and engineers were ready to explain their vision.  

The intersection has a history of being a heavily utilized, accident-prone road. Three bridges around the site are nearing a century old and, according to DelDOT, are in need of structural repair. But the history of this site goes further back than that.

Cooch’s Bridge Road overlooks the historic Cooch House and battlefield, Delaware’s only Revolutionary War site and a nationally recognized historic district.

Friends of Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site, an organization dedicated to preserving the site, have made strides in recent years to open the site to the public and the state already has invested millions in feasibility studies and preservation efforts.

Now, residents and local history buffs are concerned that DelDOT’s proposals could tarnish the site.

Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site is made up of four buildings and sits on the site of the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge, Delaware’s only Revolutionary War battle.

It has sat for over 250 years, where it’s operated as a complex for farming, milling and industry. Archaeological studies also have found significant artifacts related to Delaware’s Native American history and unmarked graves where soldiers were buried during the war.

The Cooch family occupied the homestead until 2018, when it sold the property to the state. Currently owned by the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, the state is investing in the site’s renovations before opening it up to the public by 2026.

Friends of Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site also have plans to make the site a recreational pit stop for people to visit and engage in sponsored events. Studies are underway for a trail system connecting Iron Hill Park with Glasgow Regional Park.

Changes on the books include adding a parking lot, public restrooms and making some exterior repairs. By the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the state hopes renovations will be completed.

The site is made up of three bridges, each dating back to the early 1900s and reaching the end of their design life. There are no bike or pedestrian paths around the site, making it dangerous for alternate modes of transportation to visit.

C.R. McLeod, communications manager for DelDOT, explained that the objectives for the project are to improve the structural integrity of the three bridges on the site, improving the driving safety issues on those roads and to accommodate the anticipated growth to the Cooch’s Bridge site as it opens to the public.

“We’re at step one of what will be a lengthy, multi-step process,” McLeod said. “We’re not just responsible for the needs of the traveling public, but we also have to be sensitive to the historic nature of the area.”

According to DelDOT, a total of 34 crashes have been reported since 2015 on the intersection of Old Baltimore Pike and Old Cooch’s Bridge Road. The project’s website attributes poor roadway alignment, inadequate sight distance, unprotected obstructions and substandard roadway widths and guardrails as some of the reasons for the intersection’s accident count.

Improvements could include widening the roadway with shoulders and bike lanes, intersection improvements (potentially including roundabouts) and guardrail upgrades.

Environmental and traffic studies began for this project in Fall 2020. As of now, there is no concrete timeline on when the improvements will be made.

DelDOT and engineering firms GPI and Century Engineering, displayed seven proposals during the public workshop; some involve installing roundabouts on either the north or south end of the intersection and others with standard intersections, turn lanes and road widenings.

Nearby residents came out in droves to get some answers on what is being proposed at the site. Patricia Maichle, whose ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War, spoke out against the project’s proposals.

“I think it’s appalling that our only Revolutionary War historic site is being damaged in this way,” Maichle said. “It’s not the best thing for the community. It deletes the goodness that people come here for.”

Many of the residents expressed frustration that the improvements would make way for large trucks, and were worried that commercial development of the land was not far behind. McLeod said that driving large trucks is restricted on the road segment of Old Baltimore Pike between Route 896 and Route 72 is restricted, with the exception of local deliveries.

Vince Watchorn, president of Friends of Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site, attended the meeting in hopes of getting a better understanding of the department’s plans and working in collaboration with the engineers.

“I’m hoping they take into account the important historic nature of the area,” Watchorn said. “It’s still in the process of developing a plan for what it will become, so I’m hoping for plans that won’t take any opportunities off the table.”

A decision on which alternative to use, if any, has yet to be made. Once a design is selected, the department will have to undergo National Historic Preservation and environmental review processes.

Details about the project can be found at the DelDOT Project Portal website, and public comments are being accepted until March 7. According to McLeod, another meeting is tentatively scheduled for early spring, with a formal presentation and a chance to answer lingering questions among community members.

Molly McVety covers community and environmental issues around Delaware.

2023 a banner year for the Friends

Thanks to everyone involved in the Friends of Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site, 2023 has been yet another banner year for our young organization. Here are just a few of our accomplishments during 2023:

We disbursed $400,000 to begin the restoration of various buildings on the site. The funds were targeted by the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs to those parts of the buildings in most urgent need of repair. The restoration work is still in progress.

We engaged a state-approved architectural firm to prepare a concept and plan for a Visitors Center on the Cooch Family-owned parcels of the Historic Site. The concept and planning work is underway.

The African American Heritage Database was announced via distribution of a professionally produced video (you can watch this on our YouTube channel). We also were awarded a second grant from Delaware Humanities to extend our research into the African American community around Cooch’s Bridge, and to host the database of findings.

An archaeological survey of the West Cornfield solved one of the Battle’s age-old mysteries by identifying the location of the British firing line. The Friends funded the survey through a special designated gift.

Contact with legislators resulted in our very first Delaware Grant-in-Aid Award—$5,000 to help fund our “signature cultural events” such as our Anniversary Weekend and Juneteenth celebrations.

We launched the first Bridge Builders Dinner, which drew nearly 70 people. The success of the inaugural event ensures it will become a regular part of our anniversary weekend. 

We underwrote the composition and world premiere by the Govatos Quartet of Jonathan W. Whitney’s Cooch’s Bridge: The Family. A professional recording of the performance will be made available soon.

We hope you will consider making a year-end gift to the Friends, to help ensure that our important work can continue in the future. Giving is easy: visit our Donate page or mail your check, made payable to Friends of Cooch’s Bridge, to PO Box 85, Montchanin, DE 19710.

Three extraordinary events will mark the Friends’ third anniversary

We’re excited that June will mark the third anniversary of the Friends of Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site and are celebrating with three extraordinary events you won’t want to miss:

  1. Historic home tours, Saturday, June 3, 9 am – 2 pm. You’ll have the rare chance to tour two stories of the Cooch Family Home, guided by experts from Delaware’s Division of Historic and Cultural Affairs (HCA). You’ll learn about the people who lived and worked for over two centuries in the home and the roles they played in the local community. By special arrangement with HCA, the free guided Occupying Cooch’s Bridge tours are available only to Founding Friends and require timed tickets. Go here to get your ticket.                                                                                                                                     
  2. Inaugural Bridge Builders Dinner and Lecture, Saturday, June 3, 6:30 – 8:30 pm. Enjoy great food and fellowship at La Casa Pasta and hear historian Wade Catts describe in detail his fresh archaeological finds at Cooch’s Bridge and the Red Bank Battlefield in New Jersey (the latter the subject of recent news stories nationwide). It’s a fun and history-filled evening you won’t forget! Tickets are $65 and must be bought in advance. Go here to purchase yours. 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                        
  3. Concert by The Govatos Quartet, Sunday, June 4, 3 – 6 pm. Delight in the mastery of The Govatos Quartet, comprising four members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The afternoon’s program will feature the world premiere of Cooch’s Bridge: The Family, a composition by the prominent Delaware musician Jonathan W. Whitney inspired by the history and culture of Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site. The concert takes place at the Blue Ball Barn in Wilmington. A pre-concert talk by Mr. Whitney will begin at 2:30 pm. A $20 donation is suggested. Go here to register.

In only three short years, the Friends of Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site has grown to become an acknowledged pro-preservation voice in Delaware—all thanks to your involvement and generous support.

We hope you’ll join us to celebrate our successes on our third anniversary and look forward to seeing you.

Guided tours are available. Reserve your spot now!

Join historical interpreters for an introductory program on the history of the Cooch’s Bridge homestead. Learn about the individuals who lived on the property, how they shaped the land around them, and how the location’s landscape contributed to national history.

Tours will take place at 10 am and 1 pm on the following dates: March 25, April 29, May 27, June 24, July 29, August 26, September 30 and October 28. Admission is free, but reservations are required. Go to https://tinyurl.com/coochhomesteadtour or call 302-922-7116.