Friday, September 2, 2011

Historical Floodings of the Red Clay and White Clay

Flooding in Marshallton, 1938 -- courtesy LRCV Blog
 After seeing Red Clay Creek jump its banks yet again last weekend, this time thanks to Hurricane Irene*, I thought I'd take this opportunity to highlight a few other instances from the historical record of flooding in the area. It certainly seems like there have been quite a few major floods in the past dozen years or so, but flooding in the Red Clay Valley is not anything new. There may be more of them now, but living and working along the creek has always been a risky proposition. This post is by no means a comprehensive list, just a few examples I could find documentation for.

* -- The Lower Red Clay Valley blog has some great pictures and videos of the August 27-28 flooding in Marshallton. You can find them here and here.

The first one took place on January 25-26, 1839, and was one of the most violent floods seen in the area at the time. This article in a Baltimore newspaper a week later gives some of the details. The Brandywine seems to have been the hardest hit by the freshet, no doubt fueled by heavy rain and melting snow. Among other damage in Wilmington, the first covered bridge over the Brandywine on North Market Street, built only a few years prior, was washed away. Of more interest to us, though, is the mention, however brief, of flooding along the Red and White Clay Creeks. More specifically, it makes mention of two railroad bridges affected by the raging waters. At first this had me a bit confused, but then after looking at some old maps, I think I know what the article is referring to.

The railroad in question is the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore (PW&B), whose history was briefly outlined in a previous post. The Delaware section of the line opened only 18 months prior to this flooding. What's confusing is that it mentions bridges over the White Clay and the Red Clay. The White Clay bridge is likely the covered railroad bridge mentioned in the other post, and located in the same place where the Amtrak line currently crosses the creek. (The article even references the bridge's "wooden superstructure", presumably meaning the covered enclosure.) However, the line does not at any point cross Red Clay Creek.

After looking at some old maps (including the 1849 map below), I realized that what they're actually talking about is a small tributary called "Old Red Clay Creek", not the main creek itself. This creek is still there (it starts up around Delcastle High School), but it seems it was probably larger then than it is now. Apparently it was large enough to wash away a railroad bridge less than two years old. As a side note, you can also see on the map S(amuel) Baily, whose mill was noted in the article. At the time, Baily owned the old Stanton mill first erected in 1679.

Southeast MCH, 1849
The other flood we'll look at took place six months shy of a century later, on July 23, 1938. Unlike our recent flooding, this one was not the result of a single, 24-hour event, but the culmination of a week's worth of rain, capped off by some torrential downpours. And unlike the 1838 event, in this one Wilmington was mostly spared, while the worst flooding was along the White Clay and Red Clay Creeks. This article from the Sunday Morning Star recounts the flood, which seems to match anything we've had recently. Red Clay Creek seems to have gotten the worst of it (probably due to its having a narrower valley than White Clay), with property and infrastructure damage, and near loss of life from Yorklyn all the way down to Marshallton.

Mt. Cuba Covered Bridge, destroyed 1938
Among the damage reported was the loss of one of three covered bridges left spanning Red Clay at the time. The Mt. Cuba Covered Bridge (sometimes called the Old Ashland Bridge, and pictured above in 1921), which carried Mt. Cuba Rd. over the creek, was washed away in the flooding. This left only the Ashland and Wooddale Covered Bridges remaining -- at least until the original Wooddale bridge was destroyed in 2003. Another bridge mentioned in the paper, Newark's Paper Mill Road Covered Bridge, was feared for, but survived as the rising waters stopped just short of its deck.

Marshallton, too, was severely affected by the late July flooding, as evidenced by the photo at the top of this page. If you look closely at the top of the water, just to the right of center, you can see the top of the steel truss bridge that carried Newport Road across Red Clay Creek (the Lower Red Clay Valley blog has a few other pictures related to this flooding, and a bit more explanation). The news article also tells of several people who had to be rescued from the raging waters, including one man who had been helping someone else. It sounds as if this flood was on the same magnitude as the 2003 flooding that put an end to industrial operations at the Marshallton millseat site.

And speaking of the 2003 flood, I came across one other interesting, if meaningless, fact while looking into this topic. As anyone who watched the news coverage of Irene surely heard numerous times, the last hurricane to make a direct hit on the state of New Jersey was way back in 1903. That storm, also known as the Vagabond Hurricane, made landfall on September 16, 1903. I was unable to find any reports of flooding in Delaware, but I assume there were effects from the storm. As luck would have it, the 2003 flooding, a result of the remnants of Tropical Storm Henri, occurred one day short of exactly 100 years later, on September 15, 2003. So I guess we'll have to warn our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to watch out in mid-September 2103.

Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • I have no idea whether Old Red Clay Creek ever connected with its namesake or not, or why it was called what it was. For that matter, even though the creek still exists in a smaller form, I don't even know if it has a name anymore.
  • The 1938 article mentions the Mullin apartments, which seem to be in Marshallton. Does anyone know where this apartment house was located?


  1. Scott.....If I could add one thing it would be the ruining of a entire community in 2003, due to flooding. That community being Glenville. If I go into Glenville and drive to the back, the roads remaining give me an erie feeling of what once use to be there and the destruction it created.
    The Red Clay at Stanton has reached flood stage and created problems eight times over the last ten years.

  2. Looking at the map of Southeast MCH, 1849 is the Stanton area. The RR underpass always flooded with heavy rains. I had just started working for Lowe's in 1972 when a hurricane, Irene I think it was named came thru and caused a lot of flooding and damage.

  3. The old red clay creek is now referred to as Hershy Run creek and it goes under the railroad behind Movies Ten, I used to hunt and trap that creek in the 80's and early 90's.

  4. The name sake may have come from Hersey, I misspelled the name of the creek in my last comment it's actually Hershey and the pleasant hills drive in bordered this creek many years ago.

  5. You're right, it is Hershey Run. It once extended north of Old Capital Trail. I, too, assume the name is a corruption of Hersey.