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Uncovering Skeletons from the Brandywine Valley’s Past

Photos by Jim Graham

While modern businesses built on technology flourish, industrial ruins remind us of former glories of the Brandywine Valley.

As we make a living in the businesses of the present (and hopefully the future), we’re surrounded by the bittersweet remnants of the Brandywine Valley’s colonial and post-colonial past. The cobbled streets of New Castle continue to outlast the generations that have trod on them. Just upstream from the Port of Wilmington, an abandoned canal leads to nowhere, and an old millrace along the Brandywine River is filled with dead leaves and fetid water.

abandoned area

If your peer through a fence along Wilmington’s Pennsylvania Avenue, you’ll catch a glimpse of a once-grand mansion, its dirty windows staring blankly. A burned-out factory building still haunts the banks of Red Clay Creek in Yorklyn. Just north of the Pennsylvania line, a former dairy farm’s abandoned structures litter a parcel along Route 100. And in the hills of Landenberg, steam locomotives—their tracks long since disappeared—once roared through a dramatic cut through solid rock.

abandoned facility brandywine

Remnants of the abandoned NVF facility.

When it was determined that Delaware would be a part of England—first combined with Pennsylvania, then as a colony of its own—wooden sailing ships from Europe regularly docked in colonial New Castle. They were there to carry animal skins, lumber, produce and other raw materials back to England and Europe. Often those ships arrived carrying cobblestones as ballast to help the ship ride low in the water on its trans-Atlantic journey. Here, the stones were used to pave streets. Perhaps America’s best preserved colonial town, New Castle still has a block or two of them.

In post-colonial years, wooden ships needed protection from the winter ice floes on the Delaware River. Between 1803 and 1882, seven stone piers were constructed in New Castle harbor for ship protection as the tide carried ice up and down the bay. In 1982, the piers were added to the National Register of Historic Places and are still visible today.


The cobbled streets of New Castle.

Mills operated along the Brandywine and nearby creeks for almost three centuries. Due to the weight on their circular wheels, a fast-running stream wasn’t necessary. Today, some stone mills have been repurposed. But most have disappeared or exist only as creek-side ruins.

The first local miller is believed to have been Swedish colonist Timothy Stidham, who milled barley for flour in Wilmington. From that modest start, milling flourished along the Brandywine through the next century. A 1791 report on industrial Wilmington listed at least 22 manufacturing mills, including 12 flour mills, six sawmills, and mills for paper, nails, barley and snuff. In 1804, the du Pont family added the manufacturing of gunpowder and blasting powder to that list. Its fiber mills for wool and cotton would come later.archway

Water-driven manufacturing continued through the 1800s. “All along the river were great places for mills,” says Lucas Clawson, reference archivist at Hagley Museum & Library.

Thanks to the gradual decline in the Brandywine’s altitude, it was just right for powering the giant wheels used to grind ingredients or move machinery. Mill races channeled water into the building, and over 60 pounds of pressure per square foot would set the paddled wheel spinning. The water then flowed back into the creek for its continued journey to Delaware Bay.

Not all manufacturing mills were powered by water—and not all of them faded away long ago. Starting in the early 1800s, the Marshall and Garrett families owned mills on both sides of Red Clay Creek in Yorklyn, producing snuff, paper and fibers. Spread out in an assortment of brick buildings over the corpses of former mills, NVF was the most recent occupant. Once a prime manufacturer of vulcanized fiber, it faded slowly, limping along for years before closing for good in 2009.

NVF’s was not a graceful exit. For decades, drivers along Creek Road have watched as buildings on both sides of the stream have suffered from neglect, frequent flooding and even fires.

bricks remnants

NVF’s was not a graceful exit. For decades, drivers along Creek Road have watched as buildings on both sides of the stream—including one that juts almost into the road as a target for inattentive drivers—have suffered from neglect, frequent flooding and even fires, including one this past April that gutted an abandoned facility. Just off Bridge Road, another facility that manufactured paper from cloth fibers is preserved like an industrial Pompey, left as it was when workers quit its huge presses after their final shift, never to return. The NVF facility is now being integrated into the new Auburn Valley State Park.

garrett snuff mill

What remains of the Garrett Snuff Mill in Delaware.

Gibraltar didn’t get off to a good start, built for a bride-to-be who got cold feet before she moved in. The spurned bridegroom and owner—John Rodney Brinkle, a grand nephew of founding father and slave owner Caesar Rodney—lived in Gibraltar for the rest of his bachelor days.

Once a harbor for wooden vessels, the Wilmington waterfront became the largest manufacturer of iron-clad ships in the years after the Civil War. For the next 100 years, it was the center of heavy manufacturing—especially during the two world wars, when factories ran around the clock. During that span, Wilmington produced everything from airplanes, automobiles and railroad cars to leather goods and (of course) chemicals. Now, the factories are mostly gone, save for some ghostly brick buildings.

An interesting curiosity along the riverfront, Lobdell Canal once cut into the marshlands just north of the Port of Wilmington on the west side of the Christina River. It was named after George Lobdell, whose company was the world’s largest producer of railroad car wheels in 1867. More than a century later, the canal became a Superfund site, its waters polluted by lagoon seepages from Halby Chemical Company, which ceased operations in 1980. By 2002, the surrounding marshes had been filled in and capped, and the short canal has become a haunt for fishermen.

brandywine farm

White Clay Creek State Park encompasses much of its namesake’s lower watershed, the stream having originated in the Chatham area before running south through Landenberg to Newark, where it joins the Christina River. Today’s visitors walk along hiking trails that were once road beds for steam locomotives that carried people and goods between Wilmington and Chester County.

Landenberg was the nexus of much of this traffic, the first trains reaching there almost 150 years ago in October 1872 as part of the Wilmington & Western Railroad. The Pomeroy and Newark Railroad also steamed along White Clay Creek, and the once-powerful B&O used the same tracks. In the days before automobiles, farmers found it more cost-effective to send produce to Delaware markets via rail rather than horse-drawn wagon. The railroads also serviced the mills along the way that produced woolen goods, flour and spokes for wooden wheels.

Rail traffic declined in the first half of the 20th century. Most of the iron rails were torn up and melted down for armaments and other uses during World War II. Gradually, a bulk of the wooden trestles disappeared, as well. In addition to the rail paths, there are still visible concrete bridge abutments along White Clay Creek. Just north of Landenberg on Penn Green Road, there’s a dramatic gap in solid rock—a manmade path for the trains of yesteryear.

An observant walker striding through wooded areas in our region may see narrow but defined paths between the trees that were once the crude haul roads travelled by horse-drawn wagons going between fields of corn or hay and the barnyard. Family-owned farms were once plentiful in the Brandywine Valley. Gradually, they lost out to suburban growth and competition from large corporate agriculture. The abandoned remnants of a dairy farm crowd both sides of Route 100 just after it crosses the Brandywine south of Chadds Ford. It was part of H.G. Haskell Sr.’s Hill Girt Farm, which he assembled out of smaller farms in the first years of the 20th century. Stocked with Guernsey cows, the commercial dairy lasted until 1972.

abandon house

Another part of Hill Girt, meanwhile, continues to thrive as SIW Vegetables. H.G. Haskell III planted six acres in 1986. Today, the farm grows more than 50 varieties of fruit and vegetables on 60 cultivated acres, employing more than 40 workers in season.

Mansions and grand country houses were often constructed on a wave of profits. In time, the industry’s growth and its related personal fortunes subsided. Many of these structures have since been repurposed as law offices, apartments, museums and art galleries. A few sadly outlive their usefulness and fall into disrepair.

brandywine valley past

Such is the case with Gibraltar, built in 1844 on a rock outcropping (hence the name) at the northwest corner of Pennsylvania and Greenhill avenues in Wilmington. It didn’t get off to a good start, built for a bride-to-be who got cold feet before she moved in. The spurned bridegroom and owner—John Rodney Brinkle, a grand nephew of founding father and slave owner Caesar Rodney—lived in Gibraltar for the rest of his bachelor days.

wltar was later home to members of the Sharp branch of the wealthy du Pont family. It has remained unoccupied since the turn of the century. In 1998, the mansion was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It awaits repairs.

Related: The Brandywine Polo Club Gets Better With Age