Friday, January 27, 2012

Joshua T. Heald

Joshua T. Heald
It is, admittedly, true that Mill Creek Hundred does not boast much in the way of sons or daughters who have made a lasting or visible impact on the national or global level. However, if we step down a notch to the state/local level, we do find some residents who did make significant impacts on the development of the region. One such MCH native was a 19th Century businessman, son of an 18th Century farmer, but with a decidedly 20th Century vision. His name was Joshua T. Heald (1821-1887), and of him Scharf said, " is probably not an exaggeration to say that he did more to enhance the interests of Wilmington than any other one man."

When he was born in northern MCH, it seemed he was destined to live as a farmer like his father and most of his neighbors. However, an unfortunate accident for him turned out to be a stroke of good luck for the city of Wilmington and the surrounding area, including his home region. Heald would instead turn his attention to the business world, and in the process he would help the region transition into the new, modern world. His vision was one that would benefit everyone, from the most powerful industrialists to the lowliest immigrants. He also quite literally changed the map of Wilmington and beyond.

Joshua Taylor Heald was born on May 26, 1821 to Joseph and Hannah (Mendenhall) Heald. Joseph and Hannah originally hailed from Chester County, but moved to MCH in about 1805. They had ten or eleven children, the youngest being Joshua. Young Joshua grew up in a stone house (still standing) just east of Benge Road, north of Old Public Road. He never knew his father, who died just shy of Joshua's first birthday, and the boy probably attended the Friends school just down the road. His life took a fateful turn when he was about 12 or 13, when he was accidentally cut by a knife while cutting Indian corn, and lamed for life. Now, with a life of farmwork no longer an option, Joshua turned toward education.

Joshua Heald's boyhood home

He moved away from the family homestead and attended several schools in Pennsylvania, even teaching briefly in one before moving to Wilmington in 1838 at the age of 17. He began working as a bookkeeper for the manufacturing firm of Betts, Pusey, and Harlan (soon after to become Harlan and Hollingsworth), where he quickly impressed with his hard work and business acumen. After only five years, he left to join Edwin A. Wilson in the book and stationary business, forming Wilson & Heald. He would soon be running the business on his own, and under his own name, and would become one of the leading booksellers and binders in the city.

While working his first job, it seems that Samuel Pusey (of Betts, Pusey and Harlan) was not the only member of that family he impressed. In 1844, Joshua married Hannah Pusey, who I believe was Samuel's niece. They moved in with her father Jonas Pusey, an attorney, and started a family that would eventually number eight children, two of whom died in infancy. With a family and a thriving business, Joshua's thoughts soon turned to other, grander business ventures. Sometime around 1850, Joshua T. Heald turned his attention to two very related fields: transportation and real estate. His success in these areas would make him one of the most powerful and influential men in the city.

The 1850's saw Heald start to build his fortune, power, and influence through his real estate and banking transactions. By 1859 his standing was such that he was named one of the directors of the newly-formed Mechanics Bank. That same year, he also became the first president of the Wilmington Institute -- the organization that still operates the free library on Rodney Square. It wasn't until five years later, however, that Heald would commence the undertakings that would have the greatest impact on his adopted city. They were a near-perfect synchronicity of transportation and real estate.

In early 1864, the state legislature approved the charter of the Wilmington City Railway Company, and Joshua T. Heald was elected its first president. It was his vision that powered the construction of the first trolley line in Wilmington (although it was horses that powered the actual trolleys). The first horse-drawn cars began service in June 1864, on the line that ran from the train station (different station, but in the same place as today's), along Front St, up Market St, then west along 10th St and Delaware Avenue to the new car barns and office on the north side of Delaware Avenue between Clayton and DuPont Sts (where the Trolley Square Shopping Center is now).

One of the reasons (if not the main reason) why Heald's trolley line ran out in this direction stemmed from a move several years earlier when the city of Wilmington expanded its limits westward to Union Street. Although much of this area was still farmland, J.T. Heald the entrepreneur saw its potential. About the same time that the trolley line was being laid, Heald purchased a plot of land along Delaware Avenue (and the trolley line) with the intention of developing it for residential use. This plot, 40 acres in size, would come to be know as the neighborhood of Forty Acres.

Although his new development was technically within the city, it really was suburban living that Heald was trying to promote to his working-class clientele. Since the trolley line had been extended out to Rising Sun Lane, giving it easy access to the DuPont powder mills on the Brandywine, many of the new residents were Irish immigrants working for the DuPonts. Still today, Forty Acres has a distinctly Irish feel. Through Heald's work, many working-class families were able to move out of "the city", and into what really could be thought of as the first trolley suburb in Delaware, and probably one of the first in the nation.

And what about the area that generally is considered to be Wilmington's first trolley suburb -- Elsmere? That was Joshua Heald's work, too. In 1886, just before he died, Heald began developing the area west of the city, near the B&O's Elsmere Junction. Just as with Forty Acres, the developer urged people to move out of the crowded, dirty city and into the suburbs. It would actually be another 10 years, though, before trolley service would come to Elsmere.

Another effect of Heald's Delaware Avenue trolley line was that it made that street into a showcase. Still today, when you drive along Delaware Avenue, you can see many of the homes of late 19th Century Wilmington's most influential people, including Joshua T. Heald. His house, seen below in an 1873 etching (with trolley tracks visible) and today, is on the corner of Delaware Avenue and Broome Street. By the 1880's, Delaware Avenue had become a showplace for the homes of the powerful, while just a bit further along their workers could afford their own homes, all thanks to Heald's vision.

It wasn't just to the north and west that he envisioned the expansion of the city, though. Heald also served as the president of the Christiana River Improvement Company, an organization that lobbied for the development of the area to the south and east of the city. Although the city never really stretched all the way to the Delaware as some thought it would, their work did lead to much of the industrial development along the Christina and in South Wilmington in the late 1800's.

For all the work he did improving the city of Wilmington, Heald did have one more venture that greatly benefited his home area of MCH. As early as the the early 1860's, businessmen were looking for another route along which to build a railroad into Wilmington. Although the Civil War pushed the project back, by the late 1860's it was back on again. Eventually, a route along the Red Clay Creek was agreed upon, and funding was sought for the new line. The man in charge of securing the funding for the new Wilmington and Western Railroad was Joshua T. Heald. He turned the first shovel of dirt near the Fell Spice Mill in 1871 when work began on the line, and Heald was named as the first president of the railroad.

Unfortunately, when the railroad suffered almost immediate financial difficulty due to a nationwide economic crisis, Heald lost much of his personal fortune, which he had invested into the line. This didn't stop him, though, and he soon formed the banking and real estate finance firm of Heald and Company, which he ran until his death. Joshua Taylor Heald passed away on July 22, 1887, at the age of 66, of typhoid fever.

From his humble beginnings in the hills above Hockessin, Heald went on to become one of the most influential and respected men in Wilmington, and in the state. His vision and civic-mindedness helped him become possibly the most important figure in the late 19th Century growth of the city and the county.

Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • The Mechanics Bank that Heald was a Director of in 1859 closed after only a few years. To take its place, the First National Bank of Wilmington was formed in 1864, with Heald named a Director of that as well.
  • Another proof of Heald's position in the city: when President Grant visited the city in 1873, just before being inaugurated for his second term, his reception was hosted by Heald at his home.
  • In 1870, Heald was nominated on the Republican ticket to run for the US House of Representatives, but lost in a close race.
  • After being involved in its first incarnation, Heald helped to reorganize the Wilmington Board of Trade in 1868, after it had been idle for a number of years. The Board eventually became the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce.


  1. Scott, Well done, as usual. Very informative. This may seem like an odd comment, but I really like the picture of Joshua T. Headley. He seems to be smiling and happy. In so many of the old photos people are stone faced if not down right grouchy looking. Donna

    1. You're right, Donna. It's hard to tell if it's the mustache and beard, but he does look like he has a bit of a smirk.

      The look of those old pictures is something we usually don't think much about, but there's probably a good reason. Until about the 1890's, it took several minutes to expose the plate (or whatever you were using) to make a photograph. Try sitting or standing for a few minutes while keeping a smile and not moving. If you move, the pic is blurry. In fact, if you look closely as some old pictures, you can see a headrest built onto the photographer's chair to hold the subject's head still. I have a feeling that we get (even if it's subconsious) an unfair impression of a lot of these people from their dour-looking photos.