Temporary NPS superintendent named to the statement. “The Damascus Ambulance Corps, Lake Huntington Fire Company, Lava Fire Department and National Park Service (NPS) are examples of first …
MILANVILLE, PA — Craig Rickard of the Wayne County Department of Planning and Tom Shepstone of Shepstone Management Company asked for the county commissioners’ approval of a joint position statement regarding the Skinners Falls bridge, also known as the Milanville bridge or “Black Horse bridge.”
The historic bridge which crosses the Delaware River and connects Milanville, PA to Skinners Falls, NY has been closed since October of 2019 and deemed “beyond [short-term] repair.” In addition to the commissioners, several stakeholders are involved in deciding what should come next for the bridge, including both PA’s and NY’s departments of transportation and the Interstate Bridge Commission. Chairman Brian Smith has been adamant in his wish for the bridge not to be removed.
Rickard and Shepstone reflected those same sentiments in their joint position statement which will be sent to a steering committee. The statement referenced emergency response usage, economic importance, historical significance and roadway connections as reasons to pursue either “rehabilitation or replacement.”
Skinners Falls is a popular summer tourist destination for swimming and boating in the Delaware River, making it necessary for first responders to have quick access to the water. “The Damascus Ambulance Corps, Lake Huntington Fire Company, Lava Fire Department and National Park Service (NPS) are examples of first responders who need a river crossing at this location to do rescues and provide emergency services backup support,” the statement reads.
According to NPS Superintendent Kristina Heister in 2016, the estimated time for NPS responders to reach NY Route 97 [the fastest route for emergency purposes] using the Skinners Falls bridge is three minutes, compared to six minutes using the bridge in Damascus, PA and 14 minutes using the bridge in Narrowsburg, NY.
“No matter what is done, it should provide for the ability to move a fire truck across,” Shepstone said, calling that the “bottom line position.”
The statement also says that the bridge is “extremely important” for local businesses like Lander’s River Trips, which has 104 campsites within walking distance of Skinners Falls, and the Milanville General Store in PA.
“The current closure of the bridge (and recent earlier closures) has had a very negative impact on the ability to do business, especially given the importance of river-related tourism to the area,” the statement says. “PennDOT cites [an] average daily traffic count of 325 vehicles… it was 400 vehicles prior to weight limits.”
The closure of the bridge has forced those roughly 400 vehicles to use “much less safe alternate routes,” according to the statement, referring to segments of River Road (which PA residents have had to use to get into Sullivan County) as “narrow, winding and often unsafe.” The statement reports that there has been a minimum of four significant accidents over the past five years on these back roads.
Recently, some PA residents were stuck with an even worse situation, Shepstone said, when River Road between Milanville and Damascus was closed at the same time as the bridge, “Milanville was essentially cut off from humanity for a few months there.”
The historical significance of the bridge has been a focal point of the commissioners’ wishes to maintain the bridge. According to Rickard and Shepstone, the bridge was built in the early 1900s and is an “extremely rare example of a multi-span, pin-connected, Baltimore truss bridge,” and is among the oldest bridges associated with the American Bridge Company.
It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. The bridge is also a contributing factor to the Delaware River’s special protection status under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968.
Rickard and Shepstone closed their position statement with their recommendations for the future, calling rehabilitation or replacement the “only realistic option.” They recommended that if PennDOT cannot fund an evaluation of the bridge, that it seek funding from either the National Park Foundation or National Park Conservation Association. They also advise having a definitive recommendation ready by May, in time for the annual interstate bridge commission meeting, as well as “early and frequent” communication with NPS.
“It’s too important of a place and a community to just shut [the bridge] down, rip it out or close it permanently,” Smith said before moving to approve the joint position statement. “The bad news is it will cost a lot of money to put a bridge there; the good news is that [the] cost is shared through the interstate bridge commission with New York State.”