Tracking the Past
A new exhibit at the Delaware History Museum explores the state’s rich railroading history.
Published March 16, 2010 at 12:16 PM
The railroad ruled in Delaware near the turn of the 20th century.
Wilmington was a railroad hub, as all major lines passed through the city. Businesses that would become some of the area’s top employers sprung up along the city’s riverfront to build locomotives and passenger and freight cars. And Wilmington’s landscape was shaped as neighborhoods were created to house its many railroad workers.
As the railroad expanded downstate, towns were constructed along the lines and local agriculture prospered. Milton, for example, became famous for its export of holly and other seasonal greens, thanks to construction of the Queen Anne’s Railroad.
The Delaware Historical Society’s latest exhibit will take visitors back to this bygone era through a rich collection of photos—including images from the collections of the Wilmington & Western Railroad and Hagley Museum—along with artifacts such as furniture, tools and period costumes.
The 10-month exhibit will be held in conjunction with the restoration of a historic railcar built in 1889 by the Jackson and Sharp Company in Wilmington.
At its peak, more than 330 miles of track owned by 14 companies crisscrossed Delaware, which had 76 train stations. But as other means of travel developed, freight and passenger rail service headed toward near extinction.
Still, plenty of reminders of this grand era exist throughout the state, including the landmark Wilmington Train Station (currently under renovation by Amtrak), the nearby B&O Water Street Station and the Pennsylvania Building (both renovated by ING Direct). These structures form the only remaining campus in the country of buildings designed by famed Philadelphia architect Frank Furness.
Other nostalgic nods to railroading include the popular Wilmington & Western Railroad—billed as an operating railroad museum—and the Harrington Railroad Museum, which allows visitors to walk through a 1926 Pennsylvania Railroad caboose and maintains one of the few remaining watchman’s towers on Delmarva.
For more on the exhibit at the Delaware History Museum, visit www.hsd.org
Restoring the Past
In conjunction with its exhibit, the Delaware Historical Society is leading a unique renovation of a railcar that was built in Wilmington in 1889. According to Joan Hoge, the society’s executive director, the Jackson and Sharp Company, located on the peninsula between Brandywine Creek and the Christina River, built the car for a Canadian company.
The railcar spent its working life in Canada then was acquired by a private museum in Vermont. The U.S. National Park Service took over the museum, called Steamtown, and moved the collection to Scranton, Pennsylvania. The railcar, however, did not fit the service’s mission and was slotted for the scrap yard. The historical society brought the car to Delaware in 2005 and has since worked to raise $650,000 for the restoration, the exhibit, a traveling exhibition, and to develop curriculum for students about the state’s industrial history.
The society is partnering with The Challenge Program, which teaches at-risk youth carpentry skills that will help them land jobs. These apprentices will help restore the railcar at a new facility at the Kalmar Nyckel Shipyard in Wilmington—on the site of the former Jackson and Sharp Company.
“It’s a first-class wooden coach,” Hoge says. “Parts of the car that will be restored, including seats, a wheel, and pieces of track, will be on exhibit. People can see the parts before they are restored.”
The public is invited to the society’s annual meeting on April 19, when guest speakers will talk about the state’s railroad history and about the Jackson and Sharp railcar. For more, visit www.hsd.org.
“Almost as Fast as Birds Can Fly: The Railroad in
Delaware History” May 7 through March 26, 2011, at the Delaware
History Museum, Wilmington. For more, visit www.hsd.org.