Monday, June 8, 2015

The Changing Face of Mill Creek Hundred

Section of Lincoln Highway (Kirkwood Highway) in 1918
The history of Mill Creek Hundred, as with much of New Castle County, can be neatly divided into two parts: the Pre-War Rural Era and the Post-War Suburban Era. In this blog we deal primarily with the earlier time period, but since the "modern era" began 70 years ago it's just as much a part of MCH's history as "The Olden Days". And while there are many still around who can remember it well (even if the details sometimes get mixed around), the events in the next post took place over a half century ago.

Once Europeans began settling MCH in the early 1700's, the face and general feel of the area didn't really change all that drastically for the next 200 years or so. Sure, the large tracts of the first settlers were broken up, farms got a little bit closer, and some new industries popped up here and there through the 19th Century, but all in all, I don't think someone from 1720 would have felt all that out of place walking around in 1880. Heck, he would have even recognized a lot of the names! The 20th Century, however, was a whole new ballgame. (Literally. Baseball historians use 1900 as the start of the Modern Era.) Take someone from 1880 and drop them on Kirkwood Highway in 1965, and I'd bet they'd be a bit taken aback.

The first few decades of the 1900's were a sort of transition period, with the old MCH starting to fade and a different kind of area beginning to emerge. Many of the old farms were still being worked (many by the same families who had been there for generations), but most of the mills were closing. Telephone and electrical lines were being run, but water and sewer service were almost unknown. Probably the biggest driver (pun intended) of change was the rapid advancement in transportation technology. Beginning with the trolley lines laid down around the turn of the century and accelerated by the increasing popularity of the automobile, residential patterns changed as never before. People no longer had to live within walking distance of their workplace. In 1920 it was possible to live in MCH and work in Wilmington, whereas trying that in 1870 would have been quite difficult.

Early housing developments like The Cedars and Rosedale began to pop up, and words like suburbs and commuters began to be commonplace. Suddenly, it seemed, there were lots of people living in Mill Creek Hundred who didn't make their living there. Just as things were getting ramped up, though, the Roaring 20's came to a crashing halt, as did most construction projects. Due to the Great Depression and then World War II, the period of 1930-1945 would have seen little infrastructural growth in the area were it not for some New Deal-sponsored work. Once the war ended and the economy (not to mention millions of soldiers and their families) was released, MCH would never look the same.

All those boys who came of age (literally and figuratively) overseas came home to their families and to start families, and lots of them didn't want to go back to the farm or to the city. The American Dream of a house and a yard in the suburbs took a firm hold on the psyche of a generation, and the great suburban explosion began. With easy access to places like Wilmington, Newark, and the numerous DuPont facilities, Mill Creek Hundred was a prime spot for residential development. The recently-completed Kirkwood Highway was a lifeline for the area, and much of the early construction was centered around it, as well as Newport Pike (Route 4) to the south.

Milltown Road at Newport Gap Pike,
prior to reconstruction

Milltown Road after 1960 resonstruction

But while Kirkwood Highway was a big, modern, paved road, it was in the minority in the MCH of the 1940's. The first big push to upgrade the transportation network took place in the 1910's and 1920's, when cars became much more numerous and everyone realized that all the roads and bridges that had sufficed for years for horse and wagon traffic were wholly inadequate for motor vehicles. (See photo at top of page.) The paving and widening of roads, as well as the replacement of bridges, was a big topic at the time. In the post to follow, we'll see that the first road project in the Milltown area took place during this period. A good example of this era is the bridge survey undertaken by the Highway Department in 1921, done to help assess which bridges could make the transition into the Automobile Age and which needed to be replaced. If you want to quickly lose an afternoon or an evening, go and take a look through some of the old photographs.

Road and bridge improvements continued throughout the 1920's and 1930's, then presumably lagged a bit during the war years. Afterwards, things picked up at an even greater pace. While the pre-war improvements were necessitated by technological changes (ie, cars), roadwork and infrastructure upgrades after the war were the result of demographic changes. Or to put it another way, all y'all Baby Boomers and your families started moving in. Some of it started in the 1940's, but residential development in MCH really hit its stride in the 1950's and '60's. The thousands of new residents required more roads, bigger roads, and better bridges.

There are undoubtedly many stories to tell of the changing face of Mill Creek Hundred in the decades before and after World War II. I resolve from this point on to make a better effort to include these here on the blog. The 1960's are as legitimate a part of MCH's history as are the 1860's. In the next post we'll look at the changes made to one particular area in this era.


  1. Re the remark above about taking someone from and dropping them on Kirkwood Highway in 1965....I left the area in 1961 and returned to live here in 2011 and 'taken aback' doesn't cover it! Everything changed! the 'landmarks' of my childhood were either torn down, re-done beyond recognition or relocated. . I live in a house in Hockesson located on what was a farm in the 1960's where my dad hunted deer! Some of the changes are for the better, I suppose, but not all. There are many pleasant communities where families can live, Kirkwood Highway is now one big long shopping district, and Jody Johnsons house is derelict!

  2. You're definitely right about how much the area has changed. My own personal memories only go back to the 70's, but even I can see how different the Kirkwood Highway corridor is now as compared to then. Still doesn't look right to me without the Chuck Wagon there. I grew up in Klair Estates, and I remember my mom shopping at the A&P, and going to Almart. In addition to the Nostaglia page I have up, I may from time to time put up posts just to remember certain areas. I know there are lots of stories out there.

  3. In reading your excellent post, when I got to your statement "In 1920 it was possible to live in MCH and work in Wilmington, whereas trying that in 1870 would have been quite difficult.", it came to mind that in 1872 that all changed with the Wilmington & Western Railroad. While not serving areas like Pleasant Hill, Corner Ketch, Mermaid, and Pike Creek, the railroad's 3 trains daily in each direction between Landenberg and Wilmington definitely made it easy to live within walking distance of any number of WWRR stations and to get to Wilmington quite easy. I think a good argument could be made that the railroad literally opened up a majority of Mill Creek Hundred to a mobility not available in 1870. While the builders saw the mills as strong revenue generators, the bringing of scheduled passenger service was just as important.

    1. Excellent point. It was the first time you could make the commute regularly at anything faster than a walking horse pace. I can't recall if I've come across specific instances, but it could have been used by older kids to get to school in the city, too. I know that the trolley was. The train was probably too expensive for most workers to use on a daily basis, but some people did. I'm reminded of the story of Francis M. Walker (of the Little Baltimore Walkers), an attorney in Wilmington. He commuted regularly from Hockessin to Wilmington, and was the only person to ride both the first train in 1872 and the last passenger train in 1931. I'll agree that the WWRR was an important early step towards a commuter mentality in MCH

    2. Tom Marshall, Jr has written in the Friends of Auburn Heights Preserve weekly e-newsletters about his father (Clarence), his Aunt Anna, and two Mitchell (of Woodside Farm linage) using the Wilmington & Western and later the B&O to get to Wilmington to attend Wilmington Friends School. They got the 7AM out of Landenberg when it stopped at 7:20AM in Yorklyn, and arrived at 7:55AM in Wilmington. The afternoon train would take them home. Tom Jr. was driven to school most days however he did take the train on occasion while it still ran passenger service.