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Linking New Jersey and Delaware. Finally

Del Mem Bridge roadway laying

A new epoch in Atlantic seaboard travel began on August 16, 1951. The Delaware Memorial Bridge’s inauguration facilitated the first land-based connection between Delaware and New Jersey. The traffic moving over the newest crossing replaced the antiquated New Castle-Pennsville ferry, saving two hours of travel time. 

Frank V. du Pont served as the chairman of the State Highway Commission from 1922 to 1949. As the son of Coleman du Pont, a luminary in highway construction, Frank inherited his father’s foresight. He envisioned the transformative bridge shaping the region’s destiny, not just as a physical structure, but as a conduit of long-range economic value.  

In May 1945, the Delaware General Assembly, with a unified voice, gave the nod for a structure spanning Delaware Bay. The proposed crossing would serve as a tribute to both Delaware and New Jersey World War II heroes. Du Pont became the torchbearer of this memorial bridge.  

Geographical Quirk: The 12-Mile Arc Boundary

The history of Northern Delaware’s unusual 12-mile arc boundary placed both ends of the bridge within the state’s territory. This geographical peculiarity traces back to the state’s unique historical circumstances. Consequently, Delaware had to shoulder the project’s entire financial responsibility. The State Highway Department did obtain permission to issue $25,000,000 worth of underwriting bonds. Private investors eagerly purchased these securities. The state later repaid the obligations with toll revenues. 

Detailed planning for the dual-span’s construction began in earnest in July 1946. Designers developed blueprints for the massive foundation piers, ensuring the utmost safety and reasonable cost.  

Meanwhile, Eugene Reybold, bridge division engineer for the State Highway Department, oversaw exacting bedrock tests. His team focused on the strength and stability of the underlying strata bearing the bridge’s enormous load. 

“Improved sampling devices and methods were employed, many for the first time,” reported Reybold. Findings showed absence of bedrock at a 400-foot depth. Therefore, the State Highway Commission announced that the bridge had to be constructed using the “float-in method.” This technique was notably used a decade earlier during the construction of the renowned San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. 

Steel is lifted into place in this photo form late 1940s during work on the bridge's first span. (Delaware River and Bay Authority)
Steel is lifted into place in this photo form late 1940s during work on the bridge’s first span. (Delaware River and Bay Authority)

 Reybold and his team were grappling with the complexities of seafloor stability and construction methods. Meanwhile, land acquisition for the bridge’s approach posed a significant challenge. This demanded extensive negotiations with various landowners. 

 In December 1947, the department solicited bids for the construction of two primary river tower-supporting piers and two main bridge anchorages. Pittsburgh’s Dravo Corporation submitted the lowest bid. However, their bid surpassed the State Highway Department’s estimate, raising concerns about the project’s financial viability. 

The State Highway Department explored bond financing in February 1948 with a consortium of insurance companies. These underwriters preferred, however, to invest their funds in housing projects. 

By mid-1948, Merritt, Chapman & Scott, Inc. secured the contract to construct tower piers and anchorage foundations, provided that 75% of a proposed bond underwriting was sold by July 23. 

Construction Milestones Amid Hurdles

Construction advanced favorably by 1949, regardless of the financial hurdles. The two main anchorages were cast, and the construction of the two primary tower piers made consistent progress. Pittsburgh’s American Bridge Company won the contract for the steelwork. They forged and fabricated 8,000 tons in an impressively short time. 

On August 10, 1950, the project achieved a significant milestone when workers spun the first 218-wire-strand cable across Delaware Bay. The north cable’s construction took two months, with operations running round-the-clock, except on high wind days. 

Despite slight setbacks due to icy winter conditions in 1951, construction proceeded swiftly.  

The steel framework anchored the roadway and was in place by March. Vertical suspenders, or hangers, connected to the two main suspension cables, stabilized the deck. 

Electrical infrastructure was installed by May, addressing bridge illumination and toll operations. Most of the roadway was paved as summer approached, with a small section between the east and west anchorages remaining.  

Delaware Governor Elbert N. Carvel, far right, at the official opening August 16, 1951.
Delaware Governor Elbert N. Carvel, far right, at the official opening August 16, 1951.

Officials were preparing for the Delaware Memorial Bridge’s grand inauguration by mid-summer. A high-profile dedication ceremony took place on August 16. Attendees included Governor Alfred Driscoll of New Jersey and Governor Elbert Carvel of Delaware. They and other prominent figures hailed the bridge as a national symbol of progress and engineering prowess. J. Gordon Smith, chairman of the Delaware State Highway Department, cut the ribbon, and traffic began to flow.  

The bridge, costing $43,900,000, stretched a mile across the water from Pigeon Point, DE (near Wilmington) to Deep Water Point near Pennsville, NJ. The construction’s robust design features an 86-foot-wide deck encompassing four traffic lanes, two shoulders, and two sidewalks. 

The Delaware Memorial Bridge linked the DuPont Highway in Delaware with Route 40 serving Baltimore. Additionally, the span became the regional connection for long-distance travelers driving from Washington to Boston.   

A Symbol of Progress

On November 15, 1951, workers completed the 120-mile-long New Jersey Turnpike, which marked its southern terminus at the Delaware Memorial Bridge.  

The Delaware Memorial Bridge epitomizes the vision, ambition, and tenacity of its imaginative creators. This monumental achievement successfully bridged the vast watery expanse between the two shores of the Delaware Bay. Among the tallest of American suspension bridges, the span holds a distinguished rank. This grand east-west connector marks a pivotal moment in the region’s transportation history. 

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