This year, after a decade of advocacy, TLC has undertaken the exciting adventure of creating the Chandler Mill Nature Preserve, Headquarters, and Interpretive Nature Center. What many may not know is the history of this project and its centerpiece, the Chandler Mill Bridge. Learn the story in this account written by TLC Executive Director Gwen Lacy.
In late spring of 2005, Tom Mills, who lived adjacent to the one lane Chandler Mill Bridge in an historic Bed & Breakfast named Walnut Hill, was out tending his garden when he noticed various people in hardhats, sporting pocket protectors and armed with clipboards circling the bridge. Tom wandered over to investigate. Sure enough, much to his chagrin, the assembly proclaimed that the bridge was scheduled to be demolished and replaced with a new two lane bridge. Now, Tom had lived next to the one lane bridge for over fifty years, and as a history buff, he knew that the bridge was a steel through-girder with stone wingwalls built in 1910. He also knew that the bridge was not only good to fish from with his children and later his grandchildren, but that the bridge had survived every major storm that Mother Nature had dealt it over the decades. Tom Mills also knew the bridge was built during the age of steel, and that there was a sister bridge at Runnymeade that had recently been rehabbed instead of demolished.
Tom had a neighbor named Tom Brokaw, an avid conservationist, who had been declaring the need to preserve the historic bridge for years. Trained as a civil engineer, Tom Brokaw knew that the bridge could be rehabilitated to its original load rating, and he was determined to see it preserved. Because of the two Toms- armed with this knowledge and the will to preserve the bridge, the Chandler Mill Bridge Consortium was born. The Consortium consisted of neighbors, conservation and historic preservation organizations, a historical architect, and a retired engineer. It was a rag tag bunch hell bent on preserving not only the bridge, but that certain quality of life that it embodied. The demolition meant they would lose the neighborly politeness of waving each other across the bridge, and since the road would need to be widened to make way for the two lane bridge, they knew their once quiet country road would become just another cut-through traffic dominated road.
Over the next decade, the Consortium advocated tirelessly through successive administrations. They educated, engaged, had the bridge listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010, circulated petitions, gave endless presentations, and lobbied for preservation. In the midst of their advocacy, the bridge was closed on May 6, 2011, but they did not give up. Strangely enough, once the bridge was closed, people came out of their houses in droves and walked, biked, jogged, pushed strollers, walked their dogs, roller bladed, and, in essence, took back the road. As serendipity would have it, during this time ground was broken just north of the bridge on Phase I of the Red Clay Greenway, a 12 mile loop trail traversing the east and west branches of the Red Clay Creek. Chandler Mill Road and the bridge would be a vital link in the trail system.
What started in 2005 as a will to save an historic one-lane bridge slated for demolition turned into a force of nature fueled by people who wanted a say in the future of their community. Today, a resolution beyond our wildest dreams has been formulated, resulting in our purchase of Walnut Hill as our Headquarters and Interpretive Nature Center, a donation from the Brokaw family of 45 adjacent acres to create the Chandler Mill Nature Preserve and Kennett Township’s historic rehab of the bridge as part of the Red Clay Greenway Trail System. Tom Mills is no longer with us, but his legacy and that of everyone who rallied over the years in the belief that they could make a difference will live on in the Chandler Mill Nature Preserve. This is why we do the work we do, one acre, one heart, one mind, one trail at a time. Here’s to another 20 years of advocacy for Southern Chester County.