Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Hollingsworth Case and Wild Wooddale -- Part 2

[Philadelphia] Times, June 22, 1896
In the last post, we took a look at the unfortunate case of Abner Hollingsworth, a Mill Creek Hundred farmer murdered (most likely) in Wooddale in 1896. Several men were arrested, but ultimately no one was ever indicted for the crime. Just this case itself would have made for an interesting post, with many unanswered questions still lingering more than a century later.

The real and fascinating questions, however, (in my mind, at least) concern the community of Wooddale itself. We first ran across it in the post about the Delaware Iron Works, at which time I assumed that "Wooddale" was comprised of only the iron works and the workers housing directly around it. Then, while researching the Spring Hill Brewery (and here) nearby, I was reminded of the quarry on the west side of Red Clay Creek and the Wilmington & Western tracks. At the time I speculated that perhaps much of the brewery's output was sold very locally to workers at the quarry and the iron mill. After learning more about Wooddale, now I'm sure of it.

If you go back to the article about Abner Hollingsworth, this is what it has to say about Wooddale:
At that time Wooddale was known as a quarry town and was notorious for its gambling "joints" and "speakeasies". No restrictions were placed upon saloons being open upon the Sabbath. In fact, Sunday was a day of riot and debauchery. Since the majority of the town's inhabitants were quick-tempered, fights and bloody quarrels were not uncommon sights. Farmers who lived near the place have been known to drive many miles out of their way to keep from passing through it. 
From that description, Wooddale sounds like one of those little Wild West towns that you'd picture springing up near a mining camp. I think that's basically what it was, except instead of being out west it was on the eastern edge of Mill Creek Hundred. And while the name came from the iron mill, I think the bulk of what was referred to as Wooddale was actually centered around the quarry. The 1900 Census gives an idea of what and who was there. This page shows seven Italian families containing 35 people, including merchant Raffaele Julian, or Julian Rafelo as he's called in the article, the first guy who tried to scam Hollingsworth.

The next page lists 49 male Italian laborers, with Louie Tange (Tong in the article) as the head of household. Tong was one of the men arrested for the murder but released. The group contains both single and married men, but no families. Since they're all listed as one household, it must have been a company dormitory of some sort. The quarry continued to operate for several more decades before shutting down. One question I have is what became of the workers? Did some or most stay local, perhaps moving into Wilmington? Is there anyone around (maybe reading this) who is descended from some of these Italian stone workers, and might have family stories about Wooddale?

The biggest question, though, is just where all of this was located. Between the quarry and the iron mill, there must have been well over 100 people in the area. We have a good idea where the iron mill's worker housing was. Some of it is still there, and there's evidence of where other houses were along the same lane. As far as I know, however, nothing remains of the quarry's housing, like the 49 man dorm. All of the saloons, gambling houses, and "speakeasies" are gone as well. Where were they? After looking at the aerial photos taken in 1937 (not long after the quarry closed), I have a guess.

Wooddale in 1937
In the picture above, the quarry is the white area just above center, the Wood mansion and iron works site is in the lower right, and the Hoopes Reservoir dam is in the upper right. Red Clay Creek, the railroad, and Barley Mill Road all run between the quarry and the reservoir. To the west (left) of the quarry can be seen the remains of several small roads. These lie in the area now called Spring Valley. The lane on the right which appears to lead to a cleared area more or less tracks along the present course of South Spring Valley Road. The lane to the left is still partially present as a long private drive. My guess is that this is where the bulk of Wild Wooddale was. Very near to the quarry, but only a short walk from the iron works.

The housing and structures built there were probably rather flimsy and temporary in nature, and likely disappeared soon after the workers did. If there were any remains of foundations or the like, they were probably removed in the late 50's/early 60's when the area began to be developed. Of this community that once had to have numbered at least 150 or more, I'd be surprised if anything remains.

This brings us to the final unanswered question -- Why did this Wooddale community vanish not only physically, but also pretty much historically? To be fair, other small villages like this have come and gone, some leaving little if any trace. But with Wooddale, I think two things come into play that erase its memory even more effectively. First, as the newspaper reports indicate, this rowdy village (maybe not much more than a large encampment) was not exactly one that locals would brag about. Once the workers left, I'm sure the remaining neighbors were more than happy to try and forget they were ever there. Secondly, I think it may have to do with the workers themselves. Remember, almost all the quarry workers were Italian immigrants. Before that, many of the iron mill workers were also transplants, albeit native born ones. That fact that this community was populated by "outsiders" probably lead to it being largely forgotten once those workers left.

I know I'll keep looking for more information about this unique community (as will others), and if anything else pops up I'll be sure to pass it along. The subject has interested me enough that I'm frustrated not to have more, outside of a few random tidbits, such as the fact that at one time the Wooddale Station mistress (and Post Mistress) was also known as the local prostitute. If enough additional facts emerge, I'll write another post about Wild Wooddale. I'm sure they'll be entertaining, if nothing else.

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