A Boatload of History
If you want to learn about Wilmington’s past, there’s no better way than a cruise. All aboard.
Captain Lionel Hynson is happy to tell you about such Wilmington landmarks as the mound of dirt that was once a football field where the great Vince Lombardi played.
Photographs by Jason Keenan
It is a brilliant, blue-sky day in June, and the pontoon boat docked in front of Harry’s Seafood Grill is boarding passengers for a tour along the Christina River. With two blasts of the horn, the boat slips away from the landing and into the mainstream.
Waiting for the Market Street bridge to be raised high enough for clearance, Captain Lionel Hynson finds the right moment to begin his account of the river’s history.
“This was once a turnstile bridge,” he explains. “Harriet Tubman saw it as her last stop to freedom, with help from Wilmington’s Thomas Garrett. But Delaware was a slave state, so they couldn’t stay. The toll tenders wouldn’t allow slaves to cross. That’s why Garrett had to help.”
And so the story of the Christina unfolds. It will require a two-hour journey past a sparkling new retail and residential complex, past densely green banks that still hide empty warehouses and past a mound of dirt Hynson identifies as a former football field, home of the long defunct Wilmington Clippers, an early AFL team whose claim to fame was a player named Vince Lombardi.
It continues past Old Swedes Landing—“the only place the Swedes could land in 1638,” says Hynson, “because this whole area was under water”—and on to where the river ends at the broad-chested Delaware, “the longest river east of the Mississippi that doesn’t have a dam on it.”
Here, at the Port of Wilmington, preeminent banana hub of the world, hulking cargo ships deliver a fruit that feeds most of the East Coast. Some vessels carry more than 1,000 containers, stacked like massive building blocks on the decks. Overhead, seagulls dip and roll with the air currents, headed for rich pickings at the Cherry Island landfill off the starboard. “Once I could stand on this boat and see the Philadelphia skyline,” says Hynson. “The landfill area is now 20 feet higher than it was originally.”
Long before Cherry Island became the city dump, it was home to a peach orchard. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, peach farms lined the north bank of Brandywine Creek, near what is now 12th Street. Hanging a right at now defunct Up the Creek, a former dining outpost that seems as remote as a cabin in the wilderness, the boat detours up the Brandywine, passing a few 19th-century warehouses still perched on wooden pilings that are good for another 100 years, according to Hynson.
Overgrown with an almost tropical density here, the banks of the Brandywine belie what is ultimately around the bend—the commerce of downtown Wilmington and an industrial history of flourmills, leather tanning, textile mills and black powder mills.
Back on the Christina, the boat glides past what was once the headquarters of the famed Wilson Line, whose enormous and elegant steamships were the major mode of transportation before highways connected cities on the Eastern Seaboard.
Hynson’s narrative history winds down with a litany of industrial giants that shaped the destiny of the city and the world, all of them anchored to this river: Pusey & Jones, builder of the first iron-hulled sailing vessel; Dravo, the first shipbuilder to start welding those vessels and a leading producer of World War II landing craft and destroyer escorts; Harlan & Hollingsworth, builder of the first iron-hulled sailboat to win the America’s Cup.
“If it wasn’t for the Christina River, Wilmington would probably be part of Philadelphia. The river affected much of what happened in this area, ” says Hynson. The city once owed its economic independence to this river.
Many of the industrial buildings near the foot of South Market Street have been renovated, feeding the commercial rebirth of the riverfront. The lone holdout is an abandoned shell silhouetted against the afternoon sky. Once it was the thriving shipyard where Pusey & Jones built the Mohawk, the most decorated of all the submarine-stalking Coast Guard cutters. Now, light leaking in through a hundred broken windows reveals the building’s metal bones picked clean.
A great blue heron, nature’s counterpoint to commerce, cuts a lazy path across the water. It is a reassuring sign that the once heavily polluted Christina is making a comeback. “When I was a boy, you could smell the river from a block away,” says Hynson. “Now they’re catching striped bass from the Fourth Street bridge. I still wouldn’t fish here, but every year I see more wildlife, more turtles sunning themselves at low tide. And that’s a good sign the river’s getting cleaner.”