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A Maritime Gateway’s Tides of Change

indian river inlet bridge 1940 archives final

Indian River Bay Inlet Bridge in 1940. Delaware Public Archives

Indian River Bay Inlet has always been a vital gateway to Sussex County’s southern interior, even after the advent of the railroads. The bay’s connection to the ocean hastened early area development in Delaware’s European immigrant history.  

Revolutionary General John Dagsworthy, for example, laid out the town of Dagsboro here in the late 18th century, positioning the settlement around his extensive plantation holdings. 

The inlet’s natural beauty belies its challenges for sailors from time immemorial. The treacherous passage is shallow and a minefield of sand bars. Rapid tidal action caused by the bay’s ocean proximity perennially sweeps voluminous amounts of sand into the cove. From the start of European habitation, settlers were forced to use flat-bottomed boats with shallow drafts to navigate the narrow channels. 

Nautical Challenges

The prize was worth that inconvenience: the same rapid tidal action likewise oxygenated the local shellfish beds and enabled them to flourish. Thus, a booming shell fishing industry arose around the bay’s perimeters.  Good fishing grounds and specialized navigation requirements drove a constant demand for small trading shallops and flat-bottomed coastal schooners. This led to the growth of numerous mom & pop shipyards along the Indian River and a host of surrounding tributaries. 

 Canal digging efforts in nearby Lewes, Rehoboth, and Assawoman Bay continuously interfered with the natural water flow. These late 19th-century changes, combined with ongoing coastal storms, led to the gradual silting of the Indian River Bay inlet. 

Shell fishing suffered due to the reduced water flow. Moreover, this decreased flow led to a decline in the once bountiful annual spawning runs of herring and shad in nearby rivers and creeks. 

1928 dynamiting of Indian River Bay Inlet. Collection Delaware State Parks
1928 dynamiting of Indian River Bay Inlet. Collection Delaware State Parks

Finally, by 1920, the Indian River inlet closed entirely despite the personal efforts of many local watermen working with shovels and buckets to keep navigable boating channels open.  

“Clogging of the inlet with sand washed in by the ocean had created a serious problem in Indian River Bay,” reported the ‘Morning News’ on Nov 5, 1928. “the once tidal bay had become a land-locked body of water, with no outlet. The water had become more or less stagnated, killing the fish there and destroying a fish industry that for years was profitable to residents of the Indian River section. Efforts to get adequate federal aid had been unavailing. The state appropriated some money for that purpose, but it was not sufficient to provide a permanent inlet.” 

 Significant pressure kept building throughout the 1920s for the state to restore the inlet. The first official effort to do so met with a spectacular lack of success.  

Senator John G. Townsend, Jr. and several other prominent area citizens proposed to use 2 tons of dynamite to accomplish the refurbishment. On the appointed day, spectators from nearby towns, villages, and farms flocked to the inlet by boat, foot, horseback, or in Durban wagons to witness the spectacle. 

Young James C. Townsend tagged along with his Uncle John to watch. “When they exploded it, the sand went up in the air and came right back down,” he recalled with a smile years later. “Sand’s unpredictable, you know.” 

Dredging Breakthrough

Diesel-powered dredging technology finally provided the breakthrough that engineers at Indian River Inlet needed to combat the ongoing silt accumulation. 

The Margate, a large hydraulic dredge ship capable of moving significant volumes of sand, arrived on the coast in the late summer of 1938. Delaware contracted the Hill Dredging Company, based in Atlantic City, to create a maintainable waterway. The Margate, and subsequent newer model successors, effectively resolved the silting issue. Traditional methods involving buckets and shovels became obsolete…as did the novel idea of dynamite silt removal. 

Dredging operations from 1930 at the mouth of the Indian River Bay Inlet. Collection Delaware State Parks
Dredging operations from 1930 at the mouth of the Indian River Bay Inlet. Collection Delaware State Parks

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