Friday, June 26, 2015

The Early History and Impact of the Wilmington & Western Railroad

Invitation for the inaugural WWRR train, Oct. 19, 1872
The topic of transportation advances has come up in several recent posts, but mostly in the context of the rise of the automobile and the changes it required of roads and bridges. That was the 20th Century. In the 19th Century there was another major advancement in transportation technology, one which forever changed the social and economic factors involved in the movement of people and goods. We're talking, of course, of the railroad.

There were three railroad lines built through MCH in the 1800's, two along its southern portion and one up its eastern side. The two southerly ones -- the PW&B (later the PB&W, now the Amtrak line) and the Baltimore and Ohio (now the CSX line) -- were just portions of much longer lines. There were stations here, but mostly they just passed through, sort of like I-95 through Delaware today. The third line, though, weaving its way along Red Clay Creek and then away to the northwest, was much more of a local business and passenger line. More Kirkwood Highway than I-95. This was the Wilmington & Western Railroad, and it was a good example of how a business can be important without being, itself, particularly successful.

There had been an attempt at building a Wilmington-based railroad in the early 1860's, but the Civil War quickly put that project on hold. After the war the idea resurfaced, with the planned railroad to have lines running along Brandywine Creek, Red Clay Creek, and Mill Creek. Unfortunately for MCH, only the line along the Brandywine was ever built, this being what was later known as the Wilmington and Northern Railroad (it's the line that runs through Montchanin and Winterthur, and serviced the DuPont mills along the Brandywine). This of course left the Red Clay and Mill Creek's mills with no rail access, a situation that would quickly be addressed by some local businessmen.

The driving force behind the push for a new railroad was a Mill Creek Hundred native already featured on the blog -- Joshua T. Heald. Heald gathered a group of investors, mostly manufacturers from the area. The group included Franklin Fell (of the Fell Spice Mill), Alan Wood (of the Delaware Iron Works), William Garrett (of the Garrett Snuff Mills), John G. Jackson (limestone quarry owner and chief engineer of the railroad), George Springer (owner of several kaolin mines), and Job Jackson (co-founder of the Jackson & Sharp railroad car manufacturing company). It was definitely a Mill Creek Hundred-heavy group.

The group's plan called for a railroad line to be built from Wilmington to Oxford, PA. To that end, the Delaware Legislature incorporated the Delaware and Chester County Railroad Company on February 5, 1867. Pennsylvania approved a similar measure on their end. The incorporating law wasn't too specific on how the line should be built, with two exceptions. It specified that the railroad would begin along the Christiana River (the Christina -- there's a whole other story about how the name of that thing changed over the years) in Wilmington and head "in, or nearly in the direction of Parksburg or Penningtonville, in the State of Pennsylvania".

Wilmington Depot, from Lippincott's Magazine, April 1873

The other specification I found interesting, and I think shows the strong hand of Chief Engineer John G. Jackson. By law, the line was to go "by such eligible route (passing through the limestone valley of Hockessin,) as will be favorable for the transportation of lime, so important to the agricultural and building interests of this State...". I did mention that Jackson owned a limestone quarry, right? Lucky for him that clause was in there.

But of course this isn't about the Delaware and Chester County Railroad, and sure enough, in 1869, changes were made to the charter, including a name change to the Wilmington and Western Rail Road Company. The specifications for the route were softened a bit, giving more leeway for the start in Wilmington, and only specifying that it head westerly to connect with lines in Pennsylvania heading west or northwest. And don't worry Mr. Jackson, the phrase "passing through the limestone valley of Hockessin" remained.

As for the exact route, there were at the time two competing proposals. One route would have gone up Mill Creek, probably to Jackson's quarry before heading west. This route had the advantage of being 3 miles shorter, thereby saving $25,000 in construction costs. However, although there were mills along Mill Creek, there was really no competition between there and Red Clay. The more eastern waterway shipped 6 times the cargo value of Mill Creek. Considering also that many of the investors had mills along Red Clay, I have to wonder how serious an idea the Mill Creek route really was. It might have just been a bargaining ploy in acquiring the right of way from property owners.

Faulkland Station, with Station and Postmistress Mary O'Rourke. The
family lived here, and husband Thomas was a carpenter who built many
of the structures at nearby Brandywine Springs Amusement Park.

In the end, of course, the Red Clay Creek route was chosen, and construction began in June 1871, with a ceremonial groundbreaking at Franklin Fell's spice mill on July 8. Fill was needed in places along the line to keep most of it at a manageable grade of less than one percent. The bigger and more dramatic work, though, went into the three deep rock cuts that were needed. At Wooddale, Mt. Cuba, and Ashland, tons of rock had to be blasted away to make way for the track. In some places, the boreholes used in the blasting process can still be seen. The cuts varied in depth from 30 to up to 60 feet (Mt. Cuba), and from about 100 to about 300 yards long (Wooddale).

Besides the cuts and the laying of the track itself, the two other major construction elements were the trestles and the stations. Due to the meandering of Red Clay Creek, the placement of the mills, and the lay of the land, the track crosses back and forth over the creek numerous times on its way north, necessitating a fair number of trestles. In some places some smaller ones have been replaced by larger ones over the years, but currently nine bridges carry the line from Greenbank to Yorklyn. Further west in Pennsylvania, the Broad Run Trestle carried the track for 885 feet across the valley, reaching a height of 60 feet. The impressive structure was dismantled in 1942, when the line between Southwood (west of Hockessin) and Landenberg was abandoned.

The Broad Run Trestle

Landenberg was the northwestern terminus of the Wilmington & Western, and there it connected with other lines heading deeper into the Keystone State. The station at Landenberg was ultimately joined by ten others along the line, only one of which (the Yorklyn Station, moved to Greenbank in 1968) survives today. Although the Yorklyn Station is now painted yellow with red trim, the Wilmington & Western's stations were originally painted all red. As a contemporary company publication stated, "It is our theory that stations should be attractive, not naked, unpainted repulsive sheds".

Another of the WWRR's attractive stations, this one in Marshallton.
The recently-lost James Cranston House can be seen in the background

The line was originally supposed to begin service in the Spring of 1872, but accidents and other delays pushed back the opening until the Fall. On October 19, 1872, the inaugural train set out from Wilmington for the round trip to Landenberg. Although the plan was sound, the first incarnation of the Wilmington & Western never quite lived up to expectations. There were accidents that led to service delays due to track repairs. An anticipated connection from Landenberg to Oxford fell through when the Lancaster and Southern Railroad used narrow gauge instead of standard tracks. Maybe most devastatingly, the Panic of 1873 sent the nation into a six-year spiral, known as the Great Depression (at least until the 1930s).

The railroad was forced into receivership, and was sold at auction in April 1877 for $5000. It was then reorganized and renamed the Delaware Western Railroad. None of the new owners were Red Clay millers. The Delaware Western didn't last as an independent entity too much longer than its predecessor, but did run much more profitably. So profitably, in fact, that in 1883 it was purchased by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O). Actually, first it was purchased by a newly-formed subsidiary line of the B&O, then by the parent line outright.

Landenberg Station, end of the line for the Wilmington & Western

The whole story of what was going on between the railroads at that time could fill a post of its own, if not a book. The very short version is that the B&O wanted an east coast line between Washington and New York, tried to buy an existing railroad, almost did, but was thwarted at the last moment by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The B&O then had to build a new line, and the purchase of the Delaware Western was a step towards making that happen. A few years later they did build their line, which is today the CSX freight line. The B&O referred to the Wilmington & Western line as their Landenberg Branch.

The Landenberg Branch of the B&O continued to operate successfully as a freight line, although with the advent of some of the suburban trolley lines, passenger service was cut back after the turn of the century. In 1931, passenger service was eliminated altogether, and 11 years later the Pennsylvania portion of the track was abandoned and removed. In 1957 the line was further shortened, terminating in Hockessin just west of Valley Road.

Approximate route of the WWRR in Pennsylvania
As the mills closed in the Red Clay Valley, the B&O (and later, the Chessie System) curtailed their freight service to the point where the line seemed to be in danger of closing. In the mid-1960's, Historic Red Clay Valley, Inc. (HRCV) was formed and leased the line from the B&O. For a while, the tourist Wilmington & Western was running more trains over the line than the "owners" were! In 1982, HRCV purchased the line outright, and has operated it ever since.

The impact that the original Wilmington & Western was felt in ways large and small. For the mills along the route, it was a Godsend. At a time when industry was transitioning from smaller water-powered mills to larger steam-driven factories, these sites were already at a disadvantage. Places like the Marshall Rolling Mill in Marshallton, Greenbank Mill, the Fell Spice Mill, the Delaware Iron Works at Wooddale, the Garrett Snuff Mill, and the forerunners of the NVF plant were all either trying to grow or diversify in the post-Civil War era. Without the aid of the railroad and the decreased costs it gave for importing raw materials and shipping out finished products, all would have had a very difficult time doing so, if they could have at all. I daresay that without the Wilmington & Western, many of these mills may have closed 20 or 30 years earlier than they actually did, if not longer.

In addition to the jobs that the railroad helped keep and grow in the Red Clay Valley, it had a human impact also. Putting aside work, I think it's unlikely that without the railroad running to it, Richard Crook would have leased the Brandywine Springs Hotel in 1886. Certainly without the railroad, there would not have been enough guests at the hotel and at his picnic grounds to eventually lead to the creation of the amusement park that brought joy to countless thousands.

More than that, though, I think the building of the Wilmington & Western had a psychological impact on the area. I feel that the residents of eastern MCH and western Christiana Hundred finally felt tied into the rest of the world, an impact that railroads had all over the country. It was the first rapid public transit available, making trips into Wilmington for work, school, shopping, or leisure practical and easy for the first time. Like it or hate it, we all realize that MCH today is highly suburban. In many ways, for better or for worse, it all began with the Wilmington & Western Railroad in 1872.


  1. I'll add some more pictures to this on Monday. I just wanted to get it out for weekend reading. Sorry it ran a little long. :)

  2. Scott, is there a map showing the layout of the track from Hockessin to Landenberg? Looked around a bit and couldn't find one.

    1. I've marked up a Google Map with the route from Valley Road in Hockessin to Landenberg. Since the blog doesn't allow image attachments I'll send it to Scott to post. I have just had the original 1918 valuation maps digitized as part of HRCV celebrating 50-years of operation of the WWRR in 2016. We hope to make those available. There are 8 maps 5' x 2' in size. If you look at Google Maps you'll see where the current WWRR tracks end just east of Valley Road. The tracks originally continued west crossing Rt 7 a few hundred feet south of the PA/DE border. The tracks then continued across Broad Run (large trestle shown in Scott's post) and Walnut Run. As it approached Penn Green Road it turned Northwest and into Landenberg where it connected with the Newark & Pomeroy. My grandfather was an engineer for the B&O and used to run the line with steam and then diesels before retiring in the late 1960s. He is pictured in Greenbank Station having lunch on a caboose at Yorklyn water tower while steam still roamed the rails.

    2. Looking a Google Earth, there is a line that roughly follows your route. South of Somerset lake I didn't know if that was the old track. Thanks for the pic. Can't wait to see it.

    3. Larry - I just looked at Google Earth and your line represents parts of the old right of way. Somerset Lake didn't come into being until the mid-1960s and the railroad was long gone by then. The long trestle basically was halfway between the lake dam and those two square aerated ponds to the south. The trestle went from the road at the right, across that open area, to the trees at the left. Broad Run was actually at the very left end of the long trestle. Off to the left you can see parts of the old line in the trees as it heads southwest before turning northwest and following the East Branch of the White Clay Creek. The WWRR was on the eastern side at the top of the hill and came "down" in to Landenberg while the Newark & Pomeroy went along at the level of the White Clay. The WWRR's Landenberg Station was actually just north of Landenberg Road. This was also the junction point between the two railroads. If you walk south along the top of the hill to the east of the White Clay from Landenberg, you'll actually find a circular stone structure in the ground. Here is where the WWRR had a turntable and small enginehouse. They used to bring cars around the curve and disconnect the engine and run it onto a siding. The brakemen would then "drift" the cars down tracks into Landenberg using the car brake wheels. The engine would then go to the turntable to be reversed and it would back down the incline to recouple to the cars to return the train to Wilmington where there was a Y to turn the train around for the westward journey. Three mixed freight/passenger trains a day in each direction back in the 1870s!

    4. Here is an aerial map from 1945 -- the trestle is still there near the center. You can see the whole route.
      Here is the WWRR coming into Landenberg. Note the map says "red" but it should be "white" clay creek.
      Landenberg Station of the WWRR (right tracks) and P&NRR (left)
      Good map of the local lines "back in the day"

    5. Thanks a lot, Steamcarriage!!! I'm working on adding some of this stuff to the post. Probably will be this afternoon.

      On a related note, I remember one day when I was working at the Visitor's Center at Greenbank, a guy came in and talked about how the turntable was in his backyard in Landenberg. At the time, I didn't have much of an idea of what he was talking about. Writing this post has educated me greatly about the northern end of the line. (And still is...)

  3. Great article as usual. Looking forward to the additional pictures as I love seeing what things used to look like.

  4. Alright, new pics are loaded up in the post, along with a guide to the line in PA. I can only think of one other good station pic that I could have used, but I couldn't find a copy of it in time. Maybe it'll show up one of these days...

  5. I asked this on another post the other week, but can't seem to find it now. The line that runs parallel to Yorklyn road, when it goes into Hockessin and crosses over Lancaster Pike the old tracks sort of dead end or disappear where the baseball fields are now. Where did they go from there? What im getting from your post above is that they curved west across the PA line? It seems as if they are headed the direction of North Star/Pike creek area.

  6. The line you are talking about, parallel to Yorklyn Road, is Wilmington & Western Rail Road trackage. The line, when it was built in 1872, was intended to go to Oxford, PA but they took it to Landenberg as the first step. Just west of Hockessin were Kaolin pits and limestone mines that the railroad wanted to carry the freight of. Both operations (and there were multiple kaolin and limestone businesses needed rail for transport) needed coal hauled to the plants for drying the mined material and of course the finished product hauled to the port at Wilmington for shipment. So the line crossed Valley Road, crossed Mill Creek heading west through Southwood, DE and reached the PA/DE state line. From there it went through Eden, PA as it was known back in the time, the across Broad Run (where the longest trestle on the line was) as it turned slightly southwest. It took this direction to keep out of the foothills to the north. Coming to the White Clay Creek it turned nearly 90-degrees northwest to follow the White Clay into Landenberg. They also wanted to be able to take freight from the former Pomery & Newark line at Landenberg to the Wilmington's ports. Wilmington was a huge steel ship building and railroad car construction city back in the late 1800s. The WWRR allowed rural folks to get to work at these huge operations - some of the largest in the young nation at that time. The map Scott posted above is very accurate with the route followed. The line ran passenger operations until the Great Depression took its toll on traffic when passenger service was discontinued in 1931. Eleven years later, in 1941 the B&O filed for abandonment of the line from Southwood, DE to Landenberg, PA. They used the main track and few sidings remaining west of Hockessin for hopper car storage until 1957 when they pulled all the cars out and got permission to abandon the line from Southwood, DE back to basically Mill Creek which is just west of Valley Road in Hockessin. When the State of Delaware redid Valley Road the line was shortened slightly more to just east of Valley Road were it presently ends. When the line's route was being figured out in 1868-69, following Mill Creek was one option but mills and businesses along Mill Creek only shipped half the tonnage and was estimated to generate only 1/6th the revenue of the Red Clay Creek route.

  7. Thanks for the explanation^ I understand now and took a closer look on the map. I guess I just didnt understand where it crossed over Valley Road but I see now.