Junction & Breakwater Trail

by Jim Rapp

Naturalist Jim Rapp tells us about a "Rails to Trails" project that connects Lewes and Rehoboth Beach.

Railroads have a long and storied history on Delmarva. Starting in the 1820s, railroads were constructed to deliver fresh produce and seafood to cities up and down the East Coast from our mainland farm communities and seaside and bayside villages. Coal and other commodities were delivered to the Peninsula to heat our homes and fueling our industries. Later in the 1800s, passenger trains brought urban vacationers to our beach resorts, which was the beginning of a new tourism economy.

Many of Delmarva's small towns and large cities prospered during the railway boom. But by the early 1900s, the railroads began to fail as modern trucking systems were developed and commercial seafood harvests decreased. A 1933 hurricane destroyed the railway bridge to Ocean City, effectively ending the era of Delmarva's passenger trains.

The shift from traveling on train tracks to highways and skyways was occurring nationwide. Left behind were miles and miles of unused railroad lines connecting small town America to the big cities. In the mid-1960s, an idea was born to convert abandoned railways into public trails. No one person can claim this innovative concept. As steel tracks were ripped out and scrapped, people just naturally started hiking and exploring the old railroad paths. As more and more communities took to these new non-motorized pathways, the movement became known as "Rails-to-Trails."

By the early 1980s, the railroad industry was abandoning up to 8,000 miles of lines each year. In 1983, a group of hiking and biking enthusiasts, railroad buffs, and conservation groups began meeting informally in Washington, D.C., to mobilize efforts to preserve railroad corridors for public use. The group realized the need for an organization that focused specifically on this work, and in 1986, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy opened its doors.

Today, rail-trails are making a significant mark in the healthy lifestyles and tourism economies of American communities, with more than 21,000 miles of rail-trails serving tens of millions of people each year.

Some of Delmarva's unused rail lines have been converted to trails for hiking and biking, including one spectacular trail that runs from Lewes to Rehoboth Beach along the western edge of Cape Henlopen State Park. Known as the Junction and Breakwater Trail, it gets its name from the former Penn Central Rail Line that ran between Lewes and Rehoboth in the mid-1800s and delivered passengers to the resorts along the Atlantic coast. Penn Central abandoned the line in the early 1970s.

This wide, crushed stone rail-trail opened in 2003, and originally consisted of a 3 and 1/2 mile trail that extended from West Rehoboth northward to Wolfe Glade. The trail dead-ended there until 2007, when a 2 and 1/2-mile extension was added. Recently, another stretch was added along Freeman Highway, bringing the total distance of the Junction and Breakwater Trail to 7 and 1/2 miles of non-vehicular pathway. You can park at the trailhead on Wolfe Glade Road, or the Holland Glade parking lot behind the Tanger Outlets along busy Route 1.

As all good trails do, the Junction and Breakwater offers sanctuary from the nearby bustling beach towns and shopping areas. The flat, crushed stone and asphalt trail is suitable for bikes, strollers and wheelchairs. The rail-trail winds through beautiful hardwood and pine forests, open fields and coastal marshes. The trail includes an 80-foot long railroad bridge originally built in 1913 that crosses Holland Glade and provides a distant view of a World War II observation tower located near the beach.

The tower is one of several from Fort Miles on the Delaware coast that were used to triangulate defense guns during World War II. Soldiers would take readings from offshore targets, which would be radioed back and turned into coordinates. Massive guns hidden in the sand dunes could fire shells up to 25 miles away in the direction of patrolling Nazi ships, which were located by soldiers perched atop the observation towers.

Interpretive signs along the Junction and Breakwater Trail provide opportunities to learn about Sussex County history and the plants and wildlife of the Delaware Coast. One bird you're likely to encounter while biking or hiking along the rail-trail is the Red-tailed Hawk, one of Delmarva's most common large birds of prey. Red-tails have broad, rounded wings that span 4 feet, and a body length of around two feet from head to tail. Their coloration is brownish on the back, with a buffy-white belly and breast. Their name is derived from the reddish-brown colored tail, which can be seen easily without binoculars when these raptors are soaring on a sunny day.

The Red-tailed Hawk is often spotted hovering and circling on thermal updrafts above open fields and marshes near the forest. They do most of their hunting either soaring or by watching from a high perch, such as a tall tree, telephone pole, or streetlight. When an unsuspecting animal is spotted, they swoop in to capture their prey in powerful talons. Small animals, such as mice and voles, are usually carried back to the perch, but large prey, such as rabbits, are partially eaten on the ground.

Courting Red-tailed Hawks put on a thrilling display. The male will soar in wide circles to extreme heights and then plummet in a steep dive, and then shoot back up again. After showing off for a bit, he approaches the female from above and touches her briefly with his feet. The courting pair will occasionally clasp talons and spiral to the ground together before pulling away and swooping up to safety.

Rail-trails, such as the Junction and Breakwater, offer us incredible opportunities to experience nature and explore history. Trails improve our quality of life by offering a safe place to exercise, and spend time with family and friends outdoors. Delaware officials estimate that 50,000 people use the Junction and Breakwater Trail each year, and many of them are tourists who spend money in the hotels, restaurants and shops in Lewes and Rehoboth Beach.

There are many more miles of abandoned railway lines on the Delmarva Peninsula. Imagine if just a few sections of these old rails could be converted to trails, just like the Junction and Breakwater, that could connect our towns the way that railroads did a century ago. Delmarva communities would benefit greatly from improved quality of life, increased spending through tourism, and new health and fitness opportunities. Former Rail Towns can become Trail Towns, and prosper again in the 21st century.

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