Welcome to a community blessed with a rich history and architectural heritage still evident in the homes and buildings along the wide tree-lined streets of Delaware City. Structures date back to the town’s earliest days in the 1820’s and help tell the story of its economic development. The Delaware City Historic District is one of the largest in the State of Delaware with more than 250 contributing structures.
Delaware City traces its origins to 1801 when the Newbold family from New Jersey purchased a tract of land that became known as Newbold’s Landing. The Newbolds drew plans for the town in 1826, with the expectation that it would eventually grow to rival Philadelphia as a Delaware River port and commercial center.
Its location at the eastern terminus of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal in 1829 caused Delaware City to become both an operating base and a way station for a number of significant shipping-related activities.
A peach boom during the period 1840-1880 that made Delaware City famous for popularizing peaches nationwide was started by Major Philip Reybold and his sons, who had over 110,000 peach trees by 1845. Peaches shipped from the Major’s Wharf in Delaware City reached many ports from New York to Baltimore.
Fish caught by Delaware City fishermen were processed and shipped from the town. Herring, shad and sturgeon were the main catch, with the sturgeon roe shipped to Germany and Russia to be packaged and marketed as caviar. Hunting and muskrat trapping in the nearby marshes also provided a livelihood for the residents.
Other small industries included the blacksmith shop, a carriage shop, a grist mill, a sheet metal factory, a chicken incubator factory and a mincemeat factory. Some of these were located in the area of the railroad station of the Delaware and Pennsylvania Railroad, which opened a line into Delaware City in the early 1870’s. Twentieth-century industry arrived in the 1950’s and 1960’s with the construction of the nearby industrial complex.
A walk through Delaware City’s streets allows you to view some of the best examples of the important architectural styles beginning with the Federal style of the 1820’s and Delaware’s Italianate “Peach House” buildings of the 1850’s. The styles continue through the catalog mail order homes of the 1920’s. Each of these styles represents an important period in the town’s prosperity
Delaware City has evolved through many periods of growth and decline and continues to be a thriving, living community for the people who work and reside within it’s bounds. At Battery Park, located along the Delaware River at the foot of Clinton Street, a visitor is surrounded by a scenic panorama of the Delaware River, Pea Patch Island and the New Jersey shoreline.
visitors to our town and the nearby State Parks and invite you to pay us a visit in the near future.
As early as the mid 17th century a route across the Delmarva Peninsula was sought to shorten the distance between Philadelphia and Baltimore, two important shipping markets in the early days of our nation’s development. It was not until 1802 that the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Company was incorporated and construction on the chosen route began in 1804. The eastern terminus would be at the area of Newbold’s Landing on the Delaware River, the location where the Newbolds laid out their town of Delaware City.
Finally opened in 1829 with a length of 13-5/8 miles the four locks located at Delaware City and St. Georges in Delaware and Chesapeake City in Maryland were used to raise and lower the shipping traffic to the elevations of the Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay ends of the waterway.
Soon mules were pulling barges of coal and lumber through town each week. By 1854 it became necessary that the locks be enlarged to accommodate additional traffic. The 22-foot wide lock that remains at Delaware City dates from this time period.
Excursion boats were designed with a special screw-type propulsion engine to enable them to navigate the Canal’s locks. The Ericsson Line carried passengers on the Lord Baltimore and William Penn between Philadelphia and Baltimore each day and freight was hauled by the steamers through the Canal each night.
At Delaware City the Canal had a swing gate at its River end and a drop gate at the other end. Often the wickets that allowed water to flow into the lock became blocked with debris and required repair. The Diving Bell that now stands in the center of Battery Park was used for this purpose; two men would descend in it and clear the wickets of the debris. This method continued to be used until the end of the 19th Century when the diving suit was invented.
The Canal began to lose its importance with the construction of nearby railroad lines and the private Canal Company encountered financial difficulties. It was not until 1919 that the United States Government purchased the Canal Company with plans to convert the Canal to a sea-level waterway. Work was completed in 1927 with the eastern entrance of the Canal moved two miles south of Delaware City to the Reedy Point area. The original Canal was converted to a branch channel that remains open to pleasure craft.
The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal lock, diving bell and branch channel still stand as reminders to residents and visitors alike of the rich heritage.
Located on Pea Patch Island off Delaware City, pentagon-shaped Fort Delaware stands guard over the Delaware River. Today it is a popular state park and is reached by taking a pleasant ferry ride from Delaware City. It was an even busier place during the Civil War when it served as a prisoner-of-war camp for captured Confederate soldiers.
Pea Patch Island’s important strategic position for the defense of Wilmington and Philadelphia against naval attack was recognized in 1819 when the first fort was built on the island. Constructed of wood, this fort was destroyed by a fire in 1832. By 1848, the federal government appropriated funds to build a state-of-the-art coastal fortification. It is this fort that still exists today. The island fortress, combined with gun batteries at what is now Fort DuPont on the Delaware shore and at what is now Fort Mott, New Jersey, formed an imposing defensive system.
Construction of the fort was an expensive undertaking; at a cost of two million dollars, the structure is built atop more than 7,000 pilings driven into the marshy land. Fort Delaware was completed eleven years later in 1859, just before the beginning of the Civil War.
The fort is a massive structure made of granite and brick. The walls are up to 30 feet thick and stand 32 feet high. It was outfitted with the 19th Century’s most modern defenses including three tiers of guns. The fort is entered through the sally port after crossing the drawbridge over the 30-foot wide moat that surrounds the fort.
Fort Delaware’s role as a coastal defense fortification changed to that of prisoner-of-war camp with the arrival of the first Confederate prisoners after the battle of Kernstown in 1862. As more and more prisoners arrived, additional barracks were erected. They were wooden structures built just north of the fort. By June 1863, there were 6,000 prisoners on the island. Fort Delaware’s largest population came in 1863 after the battle of Gettysburg. At this time 12,500 prisoners were housed on the island. Combined with the civilian and Union population, the island’s population reached close to 16,000 people making it, some say, the largest city in Delaware for a brief period.
To support all these people, structures sprung up on the island surrounding the fort. There were officer’s quarters, prisoner barracks, a church and numerous commercial structures. A Confederate prisoner named Max Neugasprovides a glimpse of the living conditions through the sketches he drew in 1864 while interned at the fort.
About 2,700 prisoners died while being held at the fort, almost half of those during a severe outbreak of small pox during the summer and fall of 1863. Many of them are buried in a national cemetery at Finn’s Point, New Jersey, just across the river at adjoining Fort Mott State Park.
Largely abandoned after the Civil War, the fort was modernized in 1896 by the addition of “disappearing” guns at the south end of the fort. A garrison was posted at the beginning of the Spanish-American War, which remained in place until 1905. The fort was again lightly manned during World War I and at the outset of World War II. But in 1943 the disappearing guns were cut-up for scrap to support the war effort. The fort was closed in 1944 and declared surplus property. It was turned over to the State of Delaware in 1947 and became a state park in 1951. During its entire history, Fort Delaware never fired a shot in anger.