More than a decade after National Vulcanized Fiber declared bankruptcy and shuttered its last remaining plant along Red Clay Creek in Yorklyn, the fortunes of this quiet village in northern Delaware, no longer tied to a toxic industry, now turn on the pocketbooks of day tourists and urban exiles eager for an escape out to the country.
Approaching the village on Creek Road, as the bends of the pavement leap across rapids and over historic railroad tracks, Yorklyn’s natural beauty almost conceals its sordid industrial past, when not that long ago fish were unable to survive in the water. Where once stood rows of brick and steel industrial buildings are now ruins, many reclaimed by nature or removed by the state, along with hundreds of thousands of pounds of heavy metals from the soil. Some of the old mill buildings still stand—windows shattered, paint flaking—waiting to be redeveloped into luxury apartments and shops.
On a typical summer weekend, the results of a years-long effort to decontaminate and revitalize this rural outpost have become plainly visible. New businesses are taking root and old ones finding new life in the former mill buildings along the creek, although many empty structures remain. At one of these new businesses, in the shadow of a towering brick chimney, John Hoffman is pouring beers while a Grateful Dead tribute band jams along hypnotically for a wholesome gathering of families and stoned-out hippies, all masked and socially distanced.
Hoffman opened Dew Point Brewing Co. five years ago in the old machinist shop of what was once the Garrett Snuff Mill, another mill complex located downstream from the NVF plant. Hoffman installed the brewing system on the ground floor, which had been twice-decimated by flooding, and areas, like those in Philadelphia and Baltimore, is that it’s so far removed from an urban center. Once the center of a thriving industry, the village is now a small island of buildings surrounded by a new state park, an extensive network of biking and hiking trails, deep woods and picturesque rolling creeks.
Although Yorklyn’s revival remains ongoing, it’s come a long way.
The origins of Delaware’s industrial past are tied to the area’s unique geography. The swift, shallow currents of the state’s primary waterways—Brandywine, Red Clay and White Clay creeks—were highly sought after by millers and manufacturers.
The earliest mills were erected in the 1600s for grinding grains and other agricultural products. Years later, as the Industrial Revolution brought further advancements in technology, the area became a hub of innovation in paper and textile production, and eventually vulcanized fiber, a plastic-like material made out of paper pulp soaked in zinc chloride and then pressed into sheets. The result is a stiff laminate that is easily machined and used in hundreds of consumer products, including luggage, furniture, insulation, gaskets and automobile parts.
The mills that would eventually become the NVF plant were first constructed along Red Clay Creek in 1875, and soon the area was the heart of a global industry. By the early 1900s, “Delaware produced the entire world’s supply of vulcanized fiber except for one small mill in Massachusetts,” The News Journal reported in a 2007 retrospective of NVF as the company was preparing for bankruptcy.
The vulcanized fiber industry thrived through both world wars. However, as operations expanded in Yorklyn, chemicals used in the manufacturing process proved catastrophic for wildlife. By the 1960s, the primary pollutant was zinc, discovered to be leaking from vats used for soaking wood pulp. When officials with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) attempted to stock Red Clay Creek with trout in 1968, “The longest lifespan of the fish put in there was 23 seconds,” the Evening Journal newspaper reported in March of that year. Zinc levels were 400 times higher than fish could survive.
Fortunately, says John Cargill, a hydrologist at DNREC who is familiar with the history of decontamination efforts around Yorklyn, zinc is a naturally occurring mineral that does not bioaccumulate and cleans up relatively quickly once the source of the pollution has been contained.
“There was a time when zinc levels were so high the creek was basically sterile,” Cargill says. “But zinc isn’t what causes problems with eating fish, because it basically turned the river into a dead zone where fish couldn’t survive, and where there was no food for the fish to survive on. But it’s not like the zinc stayed in the fish and therefore in the food chain. Zinc affects the base of the food chain but does not accumulate” in larger species, as mercury does in tuna.
When NVF declared bankruptcy for the third and final time in 2009 after a devastating flood, the site was a mess of toxic spills and derelict buildings. A groundwater remediation system that had been operating at the site for years continued to extract dissolved zinc from the soil to prevent it from entering the creek.
Meanwhile, Delaware began the arduous process of demolishing the most dangerous and polluted structures on the site. By 2017, the state had excavated more than 170 tons of zinc from the soil, in addition to between 500 and 700 pounds that were recovered monthly through the groundwater remediation system.
The improvement to the area was evident in 2018 when DNREC opened Red Clay Creek for trout fishing for the first time in 30 years, and more than 360 acres of land—some belonging to NVF—were preserved as part of Auburn Valley State Park. The most contaminated sites that required soil excavation were transformed into rain gardens, which also help to control flooding.
Although a handful of structures remain intact at the NVF plant, most of the surrounding area has been reclaimed by nature.
Yorklyn’s industrial past has left an indelible mark on the village, as well as the businesses and nonprofits that now call it home. Although a reminder of a once-thriving but toxic history, the historic buildings and ruins now hold the keys to Yorklyn’s post-industrial economic renewal.
Since starting as executive director at the Marshall Steam Museum 10 years ago, Susan Randolph has witnessed Yorklyn’s renaissance. Since then, she says, the village and surrounding areas feel more pastoral.
“When I started here, all of the NVF buildings located on Yorklyn Road were derelict and falling down,” Randolph recalls. “It just looked like a factory site that had closed, with buildings damaged by floods in previous years. Once they cleaned that up and pulled all the graffiti-laden buildings down and replaced them with wetlands, it just gave the town a new character. You could see the potential, finally, for what the vision of the site can be.”
The museum is named after the Marshall family, which established a gristmill in Yorklyn that would later become NVF. The museum’s founder, T. Clarence Marshall, was a steam engine enthusiast, and his collection of miniature steam engines and antique Stanley Steamer automobiles is the largest of its kind in the world.
Randolph suggests that Yorklyn’s slow transformation from industrial town to countryside getaway started in the 1970s, when Marshall opened his collection of steam engines to the public as a children’s amusement park called the Magic Age of Steam, reimagined several years later as a museum.
Around that same time, the Center for the Creative Arts purchased the old Yorklyn school building and started offering art classes to children and adults.
“We like to think of ourselves as kind of the anchor of Yorklyn’s renaissance,” says Melissa Paolercio, the center’s executive director. With indoor and outdoor stages, it functions as the de facto community center for Yorklyn, offering art classes for all ages and hosting juried and non-juried art shows. The center also partners with Dew Point on music festivals and other events, such as an outdoor movie night. “We have been here for quite a while hoping that the area revival continues to go well, because we believe the arts can be at the center of that.”
Revitalization was painstakingly slow early on as NVF lurched from one financial crisis to another. After the plant was finally demolished, however, Yorklyn’s turnaround truly started taking shape. Building additional water and sewer infrastructure will further encourage residential and commercial development.
“One of the reasons you’re not seeing more development out there right now is because the infrastructure is not there,” Cargill explains. “We were left with massive buildings that were just walked away from. Boots under desks. Pencils still on tables. Everything was just left there, including all the chemical waste. Within the next five years, people are going to see a lot more getting done.”
While much of the NVF plant stands vacant, awaiting real estate developers with deep pockets, new businesses are sprouting up around it.
“The real sea change happened a few years ago when the brewery went in,” Randolph says. Then Garrison’s Cyclery rolled in. “These are small businesses, but they bring a lot of life to the area.”
Bike shop owner Rob Garrison says his business outgrew its space in Centerville back in 2012. Since then, he’s been looking for an ideal place to relocate. He found an old empty building along Yorklyn Bridge Trail and Creek Road, right next to Dew Point. Now middle-and high-end bikes for cycling enthusiasts hang in the windows.
“We’re kind of like the last outpost in Delaware,” says Garrison, adding that his money goes a lot further in Yorklyn than it did in Centerville. “We are doubling our square footage while reducing overhead,” which includes “significantly reduced rent.”
Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, people have been eager to spend more time outdoors on biking trails, Garrison suggests, which has led to bike shortages nationwide.
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, businesses and nonprofits are adamant that Yorklyn’s renaissance will continue.
“It’s a very tight-knit little community here in Yorklyn. Everybody is trying to help each other out right now,” says Hoffman, standing among white circles painted on the grass to ensure social distancing at Dew Point. “The concerts have been good. Obviously not the number of people that we could have on a day where we didn’t have the code restrictions, but the community has been supportive the entire time.”
That sense of community, it seems, is what has kept this village moving forward through booms and busts, despite damaging floods and pollution—and despite a pandemic. Yorklyn’s long- awaited revival may have finally taken root in what was once inhospitable soil.