The SIA Fall Tour for 2004 in Wilmington, Delaware
Wednesday, October 13, 2004 to Sunday, October 17, 2004

About Wilmington
Wilmington Industrial History by Patrick Harshbarger

Wilmington’s economic base shifted from flour milling in the colonial period to railroad-car manufacturing, tanning, shipbuilding, and carriage making during the 19th century, and then to being the corporate headquarters of chemical-giant DuPont in the 20th century. Today, DuPont is no longer the largest employer in Wilmington, that honor has passed to bankcard company MBNA. The physical evidence of past industries, as found in buildings, machines, and land-use patterns, abounds, and Wilmington ranks as one of the more economically versatile cities recently visited by the SIA. The city and its surrounding area have active railroad repair shops (Amtrak and Delaware Car Co.), automobile assembly plants (GM and Chrysler), refineries (Sun Oil and Motiva), chemical plants (Du Pont, Ciba), pharmaceuticals (AstraZeneca), poultry processing (Perdue), and even a steel mill (CitiSteel). And, Wilmington has avoided the declining fate of other medium-sized cities in the region, like nearby Chester and Camden, with starkly contrasting, collapsed manufacturing sectors and impoverished tax bases.

Although settled in the 1630s by Swedish colonists, Wilmington’s industrial development did not begin until the 1730s when English Quaker merchants recognized the location’s geographical advantages. The Brandywine River, tumbling out of the hills on the northeast side of the city, offered waterpower for milling, while the slowly meandering Christina to the south offered a tidewater port, conveniently close to the wheat-growing region of Lancaster and Chester counties, Pennsylvania. By the 1770s, the banks of the Brandywine were lined with flour mills annually grinding and exporting tens of thousands of barrels of flour. The barrels were branded "Brandywine Superfine," reflecting quality and pride. The Quaker millers’ plain stone homes and the power canal still exist in the Brandywine Village Historic District, near where the SIA will have its banquet at the waterworks. There are several remaining historic gristmills in the region, including Newlin Mill, Dayette Mill, and Green Bank Mill, the latter outside Newport, Delaware, within a mile of where Oliver Evans first installed his famous, automated, flour-milling system in the 1790s.

Waterpowered mills (paper, lumber, textiles, gunpowder, spice, and snuff, in addition to flour) set the stage for Wilmington’s industrialization in the 19th century, yet the city’s merchants and mechanics were quick to invest their accumulated capital and turn their skills to steampower and the railroad. The timing was opportune since North America’s breadbasket was quickly moving away from southeastern Pennsylvania to the Midwest in the 1830s. The Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore RR (later part of the Pennsylvania RR system and now the route of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor) arrived in 1837, creating transportation advantages and priming the city for a series of successful enterprises, particularly tanneries, shipyards, carriage shops, and foundries.

By the end of the Civil War, Wilmington’s four largest firms were manufacturers of railroad equipment. Two of these, Harlan & Hollingsworth and Pusey & Jones, excelled at building both railroad cars and steamships on the strip of land between the railroad and the Christina River. This area is today the site of a riverfront redevelopment with some industrial buildings adaptively re-used for offices and retail stores, which will be on an SIA walking-tour itinerary. The outlet mall is even known as "The Shipyard Shops" with signature whirly cranes visible from Interstate 95. Amtrak still repairs its locomotives in the Todd’s Cut Shops, established by the Pennsylvania RR in 1901.

Click on any photograph above to enlarge photograph

Historic photographs from HABS, W. Gould White, photographer, March 30, 1936, Dupont Powder Mill, Hagley Museum, on Brandywine River, Greenville vicinity, New Castle County, DE

Wilmington has been synonymous with DuPont for most of the 20th century. French émigré E. I. du Pont established the gunpowder mills on the Brandywine River in 1802, but the impact on Wilmington during the 19th century was modest; the family and its workers lived in the company village well outside the city limits at what is now the Hagley Museum, one of the nation’s preeminent industrial history museums and an SIA tour sponsor.

In 1902, the du Pont family was on the verge of selling the explosives business but three young cousins – T. Coleman, Alfred I., and Pierre S. – banded together to purchase the company from their elders. They reorganized it as a modern corporation with offices in a new multi-story building in downtown Wilmington, a few blocks from our hotel. Over the course of the next decade, the ambitious cousins came to control the U.S. explosives industry and, through their wealth and influence, the very economy and politics of the city and the state. World War I marked a watershed with DuPont reaping huge profits from ammunitions sales to England and France. The company plowed the funds into the development of new products and launched the American synthetic dye industry, helped out by scientists lured away and patents confiscated from defeated Germany.

The 1920s saw DuPont become a diversified chemical company with manufacturing plants across the country. Two of the most successful products were cellophane (a film that could be used to protect and package perishables) and Duco paint (a quick drying lacquer that was a critical step in mass-producing, color-styled automobiles). DuPont’s main research lab is to this day at the aptly named Experimental Station, an SIA tour site. The Experimental Station gave birth to the modern polymer industry in the 1930s, a remarkable decade during which DuPont scientists discovered neoprene (synthetic rubber), nylon, Teflon, and Lucite.

After World War II, the expanding chemical and automobile industries resulted in the rapid growth of Wilmington’s suburbs. Up to that time, Wilmington had remained a relatively compact, medium-sized industrial city, but it was soon spreading across the countryside to the north and west. General Motors and Chrysler built assembly plants in northern Delaware, and DuPont expanded the Experimental Station and built the sprawling Chestnut Run labs. Corporate governance, scientific research, product development, and sales continued to be the focus of DuPont’s Wilmington operations with notable product launches including Lycra (elastic fiber), Kevlar (high-tensile strength fabric), Tyvek (moisture barrier), Corian (non-porous surface material often used for countertops and sinks), and Ti-Pure (titanium dioxide, a white pigment, that largely replaced lead in paints in the 1980s. It is produced near Wilmington at the Edgemoor Plant visible from Interstate 495 and Amtrak).

Today, Wilmington’s older heavy industries, like those everywhere, have dwindled with shops closing or taking on greatly reduced work, but the surrounding area yet boasts a relatively strong manufacturing sector anchored by GM, Chrysler, DuPont, W. L. Gore (Gore-Tex), and Rohm & Haas Electronics Materials (planarization and polishing products for semiconductors). The Port of Wilmington, though small by modern standards, is the main port of entry in the region for Dole bananas and Volkswagon automobiles (an odd combination!). During the past decade, downtown Wilmington has undergone a steady transformation with bankcard and financial services companies expanding or moving into the city. J. P. Morgan Chase, FirstUSA, Bank One, and ING Direct have helped to revitalize the downtown, and MBNA’s decision in the late 1990s to relocate its headquarters from the suburbs to the central business district has had a major economic impact. Wilmington too remains a favorite place for incorporating thousands of businesses (most of which have no operations in the state) because of Delaware’s favorable incorporation laws and the State Court of Chancery, known as the nation’s preeminent court for hearing disputes involving the internal affairs of corporations. Wilmington’s courthouse and corporate law offices are busy these days!

The SIA last visited Wilmington for its 1977 Annual Conference. We’ll visit a few old familiar sites, but we’ve added many process tours not previously included, we’ll be staying in a downtown hotel rather than a suburban motel, and there will be a chance to see much that has changed. And, using Wilmington’s present-day motto posted on the main highways as one enters the city, "Welcome to Wilmington, a Place to be Somebody."

Recommended Reading

Carol Hoffecker. Corporate Capital: Wilmington in the Twentieth Century. Temple University Press, 1983.

____________. Wilmington, Delaware: Portrait of an Industrial City, 1830-1910. University Press of Virginia, 1974.

Adriane Kinnane. DuPont: From the Banks of the Brandywine to Miracles of Science. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Priscilla M. Thompson and Sally O’Byrne. Wilmington’s Waterfront. Images of America Series. Arcadia, 1999.

Further updated information will be posted here as it becomes available or contact our Mary Habstritt the SIA Events Coordinator.

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