Although it was established three decades before the nearby city of Philadelphia, New Castle’s economy grew at a considerably slower rate. New Castle eventually found itself eclipsed by not only Philadelphia but also nearby Wilmington, Delaware.
A Brief History of Transportation in New Castle
For a time before the Revolutionary War and again from the 1790s to the 1830s, New Castle found a niche in the trade route between Philadelphia and Baltimore. The geography of the Delmarva Peninsula made travel between the two cities rather time consuming by ship. Packet boats from Philadelphia brought goods and travelers to New Castle. After disembarking, they continued their journey by land to Frenchtown, Maryland, a settlement on the Elk River that provided access to the Chesapeake Bay.
Initially New Castle and Frenchtown were connected by road (a turnpike between the two was completed in 1818). However in 1832, one of the earliest railroads in the United States, the New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad, began service. This railroad, however, proved unable to compete with either the new Chesapeake and Delaware Canal or the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad. The latter purchased the NC&F in 1839 (and was purchased in turn by the Pennsylvania Railroad). By the late 1830s, New Castle’s harbor was only busy in winter months when ice plagued shipping bound for Wilmington and Philadelphia. The port was also fighting a losing battle with silt accumulation.
The town enjoyed a brief reemergence as a transit center starting in 1925 when ferry service began between New Castle and Pennsville, New Jersey. This venture, like the railroad, was also rendered obsolete in time; the Delaware Memorial Bridge opened to the north in 1951.
These days, New Castle’s harbor hosts only a small fleet of sailboats during the warmer months. Major ship traffic on the Delaware River bypasses the town in favor of Wilmington or Philadelphia. Many visitors enjoy walking, running, or cycling through the waterfront area known as Battery Park, most unaware of the history beneath their feet.
The “ice piers” which protected the harbor are still visible offshore. Especially when the water level in the Delaware River is low, the remnants of former port facilities are also evident.
Like the better known Battery Park in New York City or the Battery in Charleston, South Carolina, New Castle’s park is named for an artillery emplacement that once protected the city. New Castle’s residents were no doubt aware of their vulnerability given that the town had changed hands five times (among the Netherlands, Sweden, and England) during its first 23 years of existence. Artillery was placed in New Castle as a defense against raids by France, considered the colonies’ greatest threat until the Revolutionary War changed paradigms. During visits to the park, I’d speculated that the mound or hill on the west end of the park (which children enjoy rolling or sledding down) was the remnant of the battery, though most likely this is not the case.
An article written by James L. Meek posted on the New Castle, Delaware Community History and Archaeology Program website, Where was The Battery in Battery Park?, contains a remarkable document unearthed at the Pennsylvania State Archives entitled “PLAN OF THE BATTERY AT NEWCASTEL [sic] ON DELAWARE” from May 1757. The website also shows a map of a possible location of the battery, located at the west side of Battery Park near the intersection of present day South Street and West Third Street. Pinpointing the location is complicated by the fact that the shoreline has changed in the past 258 years. Meek concludes: “Overlays of the drawing over these maps suggest that either all or much of the battery has been washed away, but some parts may remain in the knoll in the park.”
The central part of Battery Park, where the playground now sits, was originally a marshland before being drained. The New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad later developed this waterfront land into a rail yard. In 1939, after the railroad abandoned the yard, the Trustees of New Castle Common (a local civic organization that has administered public land since 1764) purchased the land and redeveloped it into Battery Park.
At the east end of the park, just off of Delaware Street, sits the unassuming former ticket office of the New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad, a tiny wooden shack built in 1832. It’s remarkable that such an unassuming building has survived for nearly two centuries. Interestingly, after the NC&F was absorbed, the ticket office found a second life as a flagman’s booth on the Pennsylvania Railroad (apparently from 1908 until 1946). In the 1950s the office was restored and returned home to what was now Battery Park.
At the west end of the main Battery Park (where the parking lot sits at the end of West Third Street), a trail extends west atop a dike into an area known as Gambacorta Marsh. The trail continues onto some drier land, formerly the site of a 19th century factory, the Tasker Iron Works (located near the community of rowhomes known as Dobbinsville). Interestingly, the dike through Gambacorta Marsh was originally built not for flood control but rather to place a railroad branch line supporting the factory.
The remnants of the factory’s pier (and some loose bricks and concrete) appear to be all that’s left of the plant.
The present day trail continues southwest onto another dike before abruptly terminating just past the confluence of Army Creek and the Delaware River. The total distance from the parking lot is about 1.25 miles (2 km) one-way.
New Castle, Delaware: A Walk Through Time by Barbara E. Benson & Carol E. Hoffecker, 2011
350 Years of New Castle, Delaware: Chapters in a Town’s History edited by Constance J. Cooper, 2001