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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Delaware Iron Works at Wooddale

Alan Wood's House, built 1826
 Although there were a fair number of mills and industries along Pike Creek, Mill Creek, White Clay Creek and various smaller tributaries throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the greatest number and widest variety of mills in the aptly-named Mill Creek Hundred were powered by the swiftly-falling waters of the Red Clay Creek. At various times, the Red Clay Valley was home to grist mills, saw mills, textile mills, paper mills, spice mills, and snuff mills, just to name a few. Along side all those were two iron rolling mills -- one at Marshallton, and the other, the focus of this post, at Wooddale.

There are a number of potential post topics revolving around Wooddale -- Alan Wood, the forgotten community of Wooddale, the mill owner's and workers houses. All of these will no doubt be covered in due time, but right now I'd like to focus on the mill and company at the heart of it all. The first use of the millseat here at the oxbow on Red Clay Creek was the Delaware Rolling Mills, built about 1813 by Edward Gilpin and John Smith. These mills, the first iron rolling and slitting mills in Delaware, were situated just off of the very newly constructed Wilmington Turnpike (now Lancaster Pike), and produced such things as barrel hoops, iron wheels, and wire rods for making nails. After about a dozen years of operation, Gilpin and Smith leased the mills to a Mr. Jones, who brought in Alan Wood to manage them. Wood's father, James, was the owner of several large and successful iron mills in the Philadelphia area. Within a few months, the Woods had taken over the lease and were running the mills on Red Clay themselves.

The reason that Alan Wood was so eager to take control of the mills just then can be found a bit further south in New Castle County -- the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. Construction on the thirteen and a half mile canal was set to begin soon, and the 2,500 man crew all needed shovels (yes, it was dug by hand). As luck would have it, the main products of the Wood's iron mills were farm implements, including shovels. And not just any shovels, either. The Woods had a patent (one of many for them) to make steel shovels, in a time when most shovels were softer iron. By September 1826, the mills had been renovated and were busy producing the shovels that dug the C&D Canal. They also made sheet iron, for which Alan Wood had received another patent for a better method of production.

Since he needed to be near the mill to run it, Wood built a home for himself overlooking the mill (see picture above and on right, below), and within a few years there were several houses for the mill workers and the beginnings of an industrial community. When Alan Wood's lease on the mill expired in 1832, he left to run the family's iron works in Conshohocken, PA, and left the Delaware site in the hands of its new owner, Dr. William Gibbons. To give an idea of the scale of the operation at the time, in 1831 the mill employed ten men, twelve hours a day, ten months a year, at a wage of one dollar per day. It produced 40 tons of sheet iron, 110 tons of rolled steel, 750 dozen steel shovels and spades, and 150 dozen steel hoes. As you can see, there was quite a bit of activity in the now quiet little nook on the creek.

The Delaware Iron Works

 In 1840, the Woods returned to Mill Creek Hundred when Alan's brother John leased the mill from Dr. Gibbons. He stayed for three years, at which time he was recalled to Conshohocken and Alan once again took over the Delaware Iron Works. This time, though, Alan bought the site outright from Gibbons for $8000, plus $1500 for the equipment. The operation was now overseen by Alan's son, W. Deweese. Alan Wood stayed in Philadelphia to run the family's store, through which all of the products of the Delaware Iron Works were sold. In 1851, Deweese left Delaware to open his own iron works in McKeesport, PA, leaving the mill in the hands of his younger brother, Alan Wood, Jr. Alan, Jr. managed the mill until 1857, when Deweese returned, having had to temporarily cease operations in McKeesport. When Deweese left to reopen his PA venture in 1861, the mill remained in the Wood family, but not run by a specific family member. (Read more...much more...about the Wood companies here.)

The last major improvement to the area and the operation of the mill came in 1871, when the Wilmington and Western Railroad was built running adjacent to the site. Like most of the other mill owners along the route, Alan Wood was a major investor in the railroad, and as such, he made sure a station was built at his mill. Although the name "Alandale" was first suggested, the new station, and the community around it, would henceforth be known as Wooddale, named after the Wood's mansion on the hill. (The station can be seen in the bottom-center picture above, just to the right of the Wooddale covered bridge.) The Wood family finally sold the mill at Wooddale in 1889 to brothers Israel and T. Elwood Marshall of Yorklyn. The Marshall brothers converted the iron mill into a paper mill, and operated it until it burned in 1918. Since then, Wooddale has returned to being a quiet little hillside in the woods, with only a few reminders of its industrious past.


  1. Do you have an exact location of the Wood mansion- I'd like to drive past it.

  2. Yes, it's set back from the road a little. Take Rolling Mill Road (accessible from Lancaster Pike or Barley Mill Rd), turn onto Foxhill Ln and go over the new Wooddale Covered Bridge, and the house is up the hill on your right.

  3. Another little fun thing today. A while back a friend had loaned me this real estate pamphlet dealing with the Wood mansion and property from when it apparently was for sale in the late 1970's. He found it on the ground one day. It gives some background on the house, as well as a few drawings and maps of the property.