Report: What is to become of the historic Skinners Falls Bridge?
| July 31, 2023
The fate of the Skinners Falls Bridge, which connects Sullivan County in New York with Wayne County in Pennsylvania, over the Delaware River has been unknown ever since it was closed in October 2019 after years of emergency repairs, closings and re-openings.
Since then, a question has persisted: Can it be restored instead of replaced?
The first phase of a new report, a Historic Bridge Rehabilitation Analysis, that finds that, yes, it can be restored, has been embraced as good news by preservationists, who have long fought to protect the span, which dates to the early 1900s and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The future of the bridge, which connects the communities of Skinners Falls, N.Y., and Milanville, Pa., is also of keen interest to business owners who cater to visitors and recreational users.
Those owners say that tourists have been left confused by the detours that have been in place and complain that the bridge has become an eyesore while it awaits repairs.
Still, just because the analysis found that the restoration is possible doesn’t mean that it’s definitely happening.
A laundry list of questions remains: If restored, would the bridge have a capacity of four, seven or 10 tons? What is the timeline for next steps? Will the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation ultimately choose to replace it instead of repair it?
The potential plans and associated costs
The bridge is among the oldest known bridges associated with the American Bridge Company, having been built shortly after the company’s formation. It’s also part of the Delaware River’s Wild and Scenic River designation.
The bridge features a Baltimore truss design, known for its short sections of additional bracing in the lower part of the truss to give it extra strength.
Restoring it as a four- or seven-ton capacity bridge will have similar costs of $15.6 million, with a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, according to the recent report prepared by PennDOT.
A 10-ton option has a longer projected life of 25 years, but is more expensive, with projected costs at $17.3 million.
“The bridges that we have that connect our New York and Pennsylvania communities are aging,” said Laurie Ramie, executive director of the Upper Delaware Council. “This one is particularly old in that it dates back to 1902 and is a very specific type of engineering that was done. It’s the oldest existing style of its type with the Baltimore truss. The important thing is it’s still there and is still serving a function that we feel is important to maintain.”
The UDC, a collaboration among the 13 towns and townships along the Upper Delaware River that serves on the project advisory committee for the bridge, has long supported rehabilitation of the bridge, along with other regional groups, like Damascus Citizens for Sustainability.
PennDOT has not expressed an opinion for or against rehabilitation.
“There are a lot of topics that are controversial in the river valley where people are on opposite sides, but we all seem to be on the same side with this one,” Ramie said. “When it comes to this bridge, it’s a unifier.”
What has been increasingly upsetting residents is how long the process has taken and the money spent over the years analyzing options. Ramie reports that $200,000 was spent in 2020, $400,000 in 2021, $2 million in 2022 and $1 million in 2023.
The convoluted process arises, in part, because of the bridge’s aging infrastructure, which always requires more of a maintenance plan, special regulations because it’s on the National Register of Historic Places, and that there are multiple agencies involved.
“Our concern is the longer it goes on, and the more money that gets invested just into this study, will convince the powers that be ultimately to say it’s not salvageable,” Ramie said.
While the bridge is closed, business owners in both New York and Pennsylvania say they are hurting and summer tourists looking to enjoy the Delaware River are left confused by the numerous detour signs.
The bridge is also not in the most attractive state.
With its timber wooden deck and ornamental features, the bridge, before its closure, blended with the area’s rural setting. It was a place that visitors were happy to see.
“The wood deck is a mess because it hasn’t been maintained,” said Barbara Arrindell, director of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability. “People used to come here just to look at the bridge.”
But the Skinners Falls Bridge has deteriorated to such a condition that it is currently closed to all traffic. No crossings of any kind — pedestrian, vehicle or bicycle — are permitted.
That means emergency vehicles are also banned.
Emergency responders, like everyone else, must use other crossings in Narrowsburg, nearly seven miles south, or in Cochecton, about three miles north.
Bill and Lou Lothian run Lou’s Tubes on the New York side of the river, but they live on the Pennsylvania side, where their son also owns the Milanville General Store.
“It’s been really inconvenient,” Lou Lothian said. “Anything we need, we have to go around to Damascus.” She said it’s added 20 minutes to her commute each way.
“They’re making a mountain out of a molehill here,” she said. “It shouldn’t be shut down for this long. They should at least open it up for bikes and walking.”
Lou Lothian said that both Lou’s Tubes and the Milanville General Store have lost business since the bridge’s closure, especially because they used to send tourists to the general store for sandwiches and snacks.
Lander’s River Trips Campground, operated by Rick Lander, has also been affected. He said multiple groups from New York end up in Pennsylvania because they don’t understand the detour signs.
But his biggest request is that the bridge be cleaned up for summer guests.
“Why don’t they at least make it presentable?” he asked. “It’s a junkhole.”
A PennDOT official said the agency is undertaking technical and design studies for conceptual bridge alignment locations and evaluating bridge types for a new bridge alternative.
The alternatives will also be put through a National Environmental Policy Act analysis that includes continued coordination with agencies on social, cultural and environmental resources, as well as soliciting feedback from stakeholders and the public.
That segment of the process is anticipated to finish in 2026, according to PennDOT.
Despite the long, corkscrew path to a conclusion, community members continue to advocate.
Said Arrindell: “It’s a very important part of our community, which is defined by both sides of the river.”