It’s hard to go anywhere in Delaware without bumping into a du Pont, something named after a du Pont, or hospitals, roads or schools built by a du Pont.
The family moved here from France more than 200 years ago to start a gunpowder mill. Since then, their story is one of power and wealth, business innovations, family feuds and more than a few accidental explosions.
There is no history of Delaware without the du Ponts. As one 1960s article in the Columbia Journalism Review put it with a bit of hyperbole, “the Du Pont Company is to Delaware what God is to Heaven.”
The epicenter of it all is now the grounds of the Hagley Museum & Library. Nestled among estates along the Brandywine Creek on Wilmington’s north side, the museum preserves the site of the family’s original gunpowder manufacturing mill.
Driving onto the Hagley grounds is like traveling back in time, and Hagley historian Lucas Clawson fits in. With hair parted in the middle, a curled mustache, bow tie and dark wool vest, he wouldn’t look out of place tapping a telegraph machine. On a tour of the grounds, he and marketing manager Laura Jury point out landmarks and explain the site’s rich history in vivid detail.
The size of the estate surprises visitors, Jury says. They hear “museum” and think of a building, she explains, but it’s really many buildings spread out.
These include the du Pont family’s original stone mansion, their first small oﬃce, a large barn that housed teamsters’ horses, a working water-powered machine shop, and some of the manufacturing buildings.
Almost all the structures are stone, built from the area’s signature Brandywine blue gneiss, a type of granite that inspired the name of the Wilmington Blue Rocks minor league baseball team. (It’s not actually blue, although Clawson says it looks bluish when it’s soaked in a heavy rain.) This ready building material, he explains, was one of the reasons the du Ponts chose the area.
Once a place of hubbub, machinery and teams of horses pulling wagonloads of gunpowder, the campus is now quiet and parklike, accented with beds of wildflowers and shaded by mature trees. Some people come for the museum, while others walk the grounds and enjoy the scenery.
After the growing company abandoned the land as a manufacturing site in 1921, family member Louise E. du Pont Crowninshield lived in the old mansion part time for several decades. The museum, founded in the 1950s, preserves the grounds much as they were at that time.
The du Ponts are now a wealthy and successful family. But that’s not the whole story, Clawson points out.
On the stately Hagley property, he says, “you’re seeing something not at its beginning, but at its end. You’re not seeing the struggle that it took to get all this going.”
More than 200 years ago, the du Pont family picked northern Delaware to build their new gunpowder business because the geography was ideal, according to Clawson.
For one, it had an ideal waterway—the Brandywine Creek, a deep, rocky stream that flows from Pennsylvania down through Wilmington. The river drops altitude quickly, which allowed manufacturers to more easily use the weight of the water to run mill wheels, which then powered machinery.
Hagley was also located near major cities like Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., an intersection with ready access to banking and major shipping routes like the Chesapeake and Delaware bays. Transportation was important, Clawson says. For example, saltpeter, a key ingredient in gunpowder, was imported from India. Early on, the du Pont Company had to be an international operation.
The patriarch of the family, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, ran in influential circles in France and was friends with Thomas Jefferson. His strong political connections, though, proved awkward during the French Revolution, and although du Pont avoided the guillotine, he and his family decided to try their hand at business in a new setting. (Clawson thinks it was more about business than escaping persecution.)
Those efforts, which included land speculation, publishing and shipping, did not really take off. So while their gunpowder enterprise, founded by Pierre’s son Éleuthère Irénée in 1802, was eventually successful, it came on the heels of a string of failures.
(Familiarly known as the DuPont Company, it was spelled differently than the family name. Even the family spelled their name different ways, leading to huge headaches for modern copy editors.)
“I hate that the story has often been overshadowed by either the incredibly good or the incredibly bad. The reality, of course, is somewhere in between. For better or worse, they’re large players in Delaware. So, let’s understand it.”
-Hagley historian Lucas Clawson
Clawson emphasizes that while the du Ponts made their fortune in black powder—the precursor to modern smokeless gunpowder—their company story is one of constant change and innovation.
“Part of what keeps them alive for so long is being able to reinvent themselves,” he says.
The company, a pioneer in research and development, sold powder byproducts like pyroligneous acid, used as a paint additive.
A large proportion of the shots fired by the Allies in World War I were propelled by du Pont powder—perhaps a dubious distinction but definitely profitable. As the war wound down, the company had to figure out how to keep its momentum going once the demand for powder dropped.
The answer included early plastics, then paints and varnishes, and a chemical company was born.
“It’s this need to figure out what do we do with ourselves after this major event, seizing on an opportunity,” Clawson says.
DuPont dabbled in high-end custom cars, some of which you can see at the museum. Other products, per the Encyclopaedia Britannica, have included industrial chemicals, synthetic fibers, petroleum-based fuels, pharmaceuticals, building materials, ingredients for cosmetics and agricultural chemicals. In other words, they made pretty much everything. Among the synthetic fibers, you may have heard of nylon, which along with other uses transformed women’s fashion.
The Hagley Museum, too, has evolved. A main focus is still the story of the du Pont empire, but it also looks more broadly at the history of American industry. One of the museum’s latest exhibits, Nation of Inventors, opened this fall, featuring hundreds of tiny “patent models” of inventions.
The museum’s research library has grown from one focused on the du Pont family records, Clawson says, to a hub drawing researchers to learn about business history.
Tour guide Richard Templeton touches off a fuse. It smokes, then there’s a bright yellow flash, a bang and a cloud of smoke. He’s demonstrating the éprouvette, a device used to evaluate gunpowder. This particular model has a wheel that spins when the charge goes off, measuring the blast. Salesmen once used it to compare du Pont powder with the competition. An enterprising powder salesman could game the system to impress customers, Templeton says, with tricks like packing the DuPont sample tighter than the rival’s product.
The museum, of course, no longer stocks hundreds of tons of gunpowder, but the éprouvette is a reminder of the dangerous nature of the business. While other local companies used water power to grind flour, du Pont used it for a product that could, and sometimes did, spread fragments of the factory and its employees over a wide area.
A riveting booklet put together by William Hulbert du Pont, Explosions at the du Pont Powder Mills, pulls together family records and letters to tell the story of some of the worst of these disasters. The Hagley site alone suffered 288 explosions, killing 228 people. This is one reason, Clawson points out, that the campus was spread out over so many acres: An accident wouldn’t take out the whole business.
Accounts from the time include sentences like this: “Harrigan was in the mixing-house and he was blown to small pieces so that very little was found.”
It wasn’t just the mill at risk, either. Clawson says Wilmington banned du Pont powder wagons from going through the city after three of them blew up downtown in 1854 and “wiped out the better part of the city block.” Family member Lammot du Pont recounted arriving at the scene and finding a local man “haranguing the populace saying the Duponts ought to be linched (sic).”
More than one member of the du Pont family died alongside their employees. That included Lammot du Pont himself, a scientist whose experiments with nitroglycerin led to a fatal explosion at a dynamite factory in New Jersey.
The story of the du Ponts is complicated, one of both success and jobs lost when factories closed, along with family disputes over money.
“I hate that (the story has) often been overshadowed by either the incredibly good or the incredibly bad,” Clawson says. “The reality, of course, is somewhere in between. For better or worse, they’re large players in Delaware. So, let’s understand it.”