University of Delaware Library

Special Collections Department

The Strand


The Changing Look of Delaware

Carol E. Hoffecker
Richards Professor of History
University of Delaware

DuPont Highway
There is a fascination at seeing images of familiar places as they appeared long ago, before the continuing march of technological modernization changed them almost beyond recognition. The Library of the University of Delaware has one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of historic images of Delaware. From this rich resource the Library has assembled a sampling of scenes from Delaware's past. This exhibit provides a glimpse into a world that, in spite of its geographical proximity to us, was very different from the one that we inhabit today. This exhibit will mean different things to viewers depending on their age. For older Delawareans who may recall some of what they see, it will be like greeting old friends whom they have not seen in a long time. To younger people, however, the images will introduce an unfamiliar world: a world where teams of mules pulled plows, where today's popular beach resorts were in their infancy, and where "down town" was the center of community life and commerce in towns and cities throughout the state.

The elements that make up the exhibit were produced in different times and in different media to fulfill a variety of purposes. Some aimed at accuracy, others at artistry. The early maps are of particular interest because the cartographers who drew them often achieved the latter while aiming for the former. The maps illustrate the importance of the Delaware Bay and River to the early European settlers. Water was indispensable. Navigable waterways dictated where settlements could be established and where commerce could flourish. Rapidly flowing streams provided the best source of power to turn logs into boards and grain into flour. The maps also illustrate the struggle for the land that absorbed America's two greatest proprietary families, the Penns and the Calverts, through most of the colonial period. The outcome paved the way for Delaware to become its own state, independent of either of its larger neighbors, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

The Delaware that the first European settlers first saw was heavily forested. Pines mixed with oak, bald cypress, cedar and holly filled much of the southern part of the state, while hardwoods predominated in the north. Marshlands covered the land close to the bay providing fodder for migratory birds. Beaver dams created ponds along the meandering streams that ran from the spine of the state to the Delaware Bay and River. There were also meadows and farm clearings that the Native Americans made close to their villages..

It did not take long for the newcomers to alter the landscape. The Dutch and Swedes paid the Native Americans to supply beaver skins, and within two decades the beaver virtually vanished from Delaware. The settlers drained marshes to create meadows for their farm animals and to provide dry land for building houses and barns. Land was cleared for farming; roadways were laid out; and bridges were built across small rivers. By the time of the American Revolution there were numerous villages in Delaware and several towns: New Castle, Dover, and Lewes were county seats, and Wilmington was a port and center for flour milling. The Swedes and Finns had introduced the log cabin to America in Delaware and these simple dwellings, together with structures of sawed wood, were commonplace among the early settlements. By the 1700s, however, brick had become the preferred building material and nearly all of the state's most treasured historic churches, houses, and public buildings were constructed of that material. These simple, yet elegant buildings have in more recent times attracted artists, architects, and photographers some of whose work is on display in this exhibition.

The American Revolution coincided with another great revolution, not in political philosophy, but in the methods of production that we call the Industrial Revolution. Freed of colonial restraints Americans seized upon opportunities to build the new nation's economy. The streams and rivers of northern New Castle County-- Brandywine, Red Clay, and White Clay-- powered mills that manufactured textiles, paper, and black powder. Production in the new water- powered factories and the expansion of commercial agriculture depended on improved transportation. The Delaware of 1840 had changed quite dramatically in just fifty years. Steamboats challenged sail on the Delaware River. The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal bisected the state shortening the trip from Baltimore to Philadelphia. Turnpikes radiated out from Wilmington, now the state's largest city and center of manufacturing, and most novel of all, a railroad called the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore linked Delaware to the emerging land-based American transportation network. In 1856 the railroad was extended to southern Delaware, thus opening new lands in the western parts of Kent and Sussex Counties to agricultural markets.

Late-nineteenth-century Wilmington was an industrial city. Its steam-powered factories, located near to the Christina River and the railroad, produced leather goods, riverboats, railroad cars, and the iron wheels on which America's transportation ran. The city attracted newcomers from many places: farm workers, both black and white, from the Delmarva region, and European immigrants, especially Irish, English, and Germans from the 1840s through the 1880s, then Polish, Russian Jews, and Italians. Each new group created its own institutions, especially churches and synagogues, that stood at the center of that group's neighborhood of brick row houses. The factory owners who constituted the city's wealthiest citizens built larger, more stylish homes on the high ground of the western part of the city on or near Delaware Avenue. A horse-car line, then later, trolley cars sped transportation within the city and made it possible to extend home building ever farther from the urban center on Market Street.

What steam power and railroads were to change in the nineteenth century, the internal combustion engine and highways were to the twentieth. The catalyst for this far-reaching development in Delaware was T. Coleman du Pont, the president of the Dupont Company and an enthusiastic visionary for motorized transportation. In 1902 T. Coleman was one of three du Pont cousins who reshaped their family's century-old black powder and explosives firm into a modern corporation. Seeing the backwardness of Delaware's agriculture, T. Coleman proposed to build a concrete divided highway the length of the state at his own expense. The farmers were suspicious, but T. Coleman was as good as his word. Not only was the highway a free gift, it brought on a revolution in agricultural production in southern Delaware.

Until the 1920s raising chickens had been only a minor aspect of farming, the farm wife's source of "egg money." Then Cecile Steele of Ocean View discovered the profit to be made in trucking young chickens to urban markets on the new highway. Within a few years Sussex County became the largest poultry-producing county in the United States, a position it still holds. Long, wooden chicken houses dotted the county's agricultural landscape and farmers turned their arable land toward the production of corn and soybeans to feed the growing flocks of birds. Prosperity led to the clearing of many more acres of timberland until the formerly heavily forested Sussex became predominantly agricultural. Town life quickened, and farmers, who for the first time in their lives were earning significant cash, bought tractors and trucks to replace their mules and wagons.

The highway also speeded the development of seashore resorts along Sussex's ocean and bay fronts. The ocean-side resorts of Rehoboth Beach and Bethany Beach began as Methodist camp meetings. Rehoboth was made accessible by the extension of a rail line in the late nineteenth century. The depot was on Rehoboth's broad main boulevard, Rehoboth Avenue. In imitation of Atlantic City, Rehoboth added a modest boardwalk. By the early twentieth century the resort's clapboard houses usually built with porches on two sides had the look of a typical southern Delaware town, except that the town was built on the sand only one dune away from the ocean beach. There were also a few small hotels, mostly designed as larger versions of the houses. The automobile changed everything. New, larger hotels were built, more houses filled in the streets, and the dunes disappeared under the concession buildings constructed along an enlarged boardwalk.

The transformative power of the du Pont Highway had an equally dramatic influence in the northern part of the state. The highway was the center of a network of roadways that encouraged the development of suburban housing extending beyond Wilmington's older trolley suburbs. An explosion of building followed World War II. Suburban developments were located close to the newly constructed Kirkwood Highway that connected Wilmington to Newark and the enlarged Concord Pike, which had originated as a turnpike in the early nineteenth century. In Kent County the construction of a major east coast US Air Force base and establishment of new industries re-made Dover, and the du Pont Highway bypass of the state capital became a jumble of fast food restaurants and strip malls similar to the pattern in northern Delaware.

Despite warnings about overbuilding, the pressure for highway expansion and other forms of construction continued to accelerate during the latter years of the twentieth century. I-95 and the Delaware Memorial Bridges carry thousands of east coast travelers through Delaware every day. Many don't know they have been in Delaware until they stop to pay a toll. With E-Z pass they may never know. Large regional malls with their gigantic parking lots have long since removed retail shopping from Delaware's main streets. Many town centers struggle to find a new identity. Former farming communities such as the area around Middletown and the western side of Indian River Bay near Millsboro have seen a rapid shift from agriculture to residential construction.

In the midst of these seemingly relentless changes it is salutary to look back at the world we have left behind. A slower world, a less crowded world, and one in which people lived closer to nature, but with fewer possessions. We cannot go back, but in reflecting on the world we have left behind we can gain a sense of where we have been, and by connecting with our past, search for ways to sustain our ties to the land that is Delaware.


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Last Modified 12/21/10


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