One of the benefits of being so entwined with America’s rich history is the ability to boast a vast collection of significant attractions and historical sites. Other states have also played key roles in the country’s growth and development, but Delaware is certainly among the most important.
The First State isn’t huge, but when it comes to U.S. history, it is vital. Spend some time driving throughout the state and you’ll find many locations of importance. Some date to the Revolutionary era, while others are even older. And thanks to a variety of options, visitors and residents alike have plenty of chances to have several different experiences.
“It’s one of the reasons why our state tagline is ‘Endless Discoveries,’” says Liz Keller, director of the Delaware Tourism office. “Even if you live in the state, you still haven’t been able to see all the history. Delaware has a wide range of history, from the DuPonts producing gunpowder at Hagley Yard to people looking for submarines in towns at Cape Henlopen.”
It’s nearly impossible to chronicle all the landmarks in Delaware, but here are seven that will provide considerable enjoyment for anyone looking to learn more about the state.
Because of its coastal setting, Delaware has plenty of lighthouses for people to visit and enjoy. All told there are—or were—22 lighthouses within state boundaries, and several of them have historical significance and some outstanding vistas.
One that has particular significance is the Breakwater Lighthouse, built in 1855 and found in Cape Henlopen State Park. It stands at the point in Lewes where the ocean meets the bay and is accessible by a variety of methods, including Cape Water Tours and Taxis. Although visitors aren’t allowed inside the lighthouse, it is an imposing structure to view and its location provides plenty to see, including Fort Miles. Located within the park, the fort was a military base during World War II that helped comprise part of the U.S. coastal defense.
“It’s the most gorgeous place to watch a sunrise,” Keller says. “If you haven’t seen a sunrise there, you are missing out.”
Other lighthouses of note include the Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse, directly outside Lewes on the southeast end of the outer breakwater. It was built in 1908 but was destroyed not long after by significant storm. In 1926, it was rebuilt and still serves as a navigational aid. Near Wilmington, the Bellevue Range Lighthouse marks the entrance to the Christina River from the Delaware. Now administered by the Coast Guard, it was built in 1835 and stands 104 feet tall.
For residents, the Kalmar Nyckel is every bit as important as the Mayflower, because settlers of New Sweden traveled to the area on it and began the journey that brought America the First State and everything that has happened there since the Colonial period.
The ship was built in Holland in 1625 and sold four years later to Sweden. It served as an auxiliary warship for the Swedish navy, but in addition to its duties in that service, it made four trips between Scandinavia and the New World—the most of any ship during that era of American history—bringing settlers and supplies. Although it was believed sunk by an English vessel in the North Sea in 1652 after it was sold back to the Dutch, the Kalmar Nyckel remains a key part of Delaware history.
Visitors can celebrate it throughout the year by boarding the replica version docked along the Wilmington waterfront. Thanks to a variety of educational programs, special events and recreational opportunities, the ship lives on. It sails daily from April or May through November, and logs more than 3,000 nautical miles each year. Taking part in the Wilmington Pirate Festival, the Kalmar Nyckel serves as a “ghost ship” in advance of Halloween. Those looking for a more intimate experience can rent it for private cruises. It regularly brings Delaware’s history to other ports around the Eastern Seaboard while visiting cities for festivals and special events.
There is no question about the influence on Delaware’s earliest days by the intrepid Swedish travelers who helped settle part of the state, but perhaps the only part of the area that contains actual parts of the Scandinavian country is Wilmington’s Holy Trinity Church, more commonly known as Old Swedes. It was constructed in the late 17th century partly with bricks from Sweden that had served as ballast in the Kalmar Nyckel and Fogel Grip, ships that brought settlers to Delaware.
The grounds are believed to have been used originally by Lenape tribes that were in the area well before the two ships landed. In the mid-17th century, settlers employed it as a burial ground for residents of Fort Christina. Swedish Lutheran missionary Eric Bjork arrived in Delaware in 1697, and the following year construction began on the church, which remains in use today.
In 1791, Old Swedes became an Episcopal church, and it is still part of the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware. The property holds two buildings, Old Swedes and Hendrickson House, built in 1722 by a Swedish family in suburban Philadelphia. It was relocated to Wilmington in 1960, and it contains offices, research facilities and a museum. In 1961, the church was declared a national landmark. Tours are available Thursday through Saturday, on the hour from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., by reservation only.
Old Swedes has played a significant role in Delaware’s history, and so has Barratt’s Chapel in Frederica, near Dover. Built in 1780, the chapel is the oldest surviving religious building in the nation that serves Methodists. Four years later, a meeting between Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke in the chapel was the first step in the formation of the country’s Methodist Episcopal Church.
The waters near Delaware have been sources of great interest and concern by U.S. troops and enemy forces since Revolutionary times. As the country worked to strengthen its fortifications against incursion, it has always looked at the state as a key part of the plan.
Pea Patch Island, located in a mid-channel of the Delaware River, has hosted a few incarnations of Fort Delaware, but the one standing today dates to its construction between 1848 and 1860. During the Civil War, it housed Confederate prisoners of wars of various ranks, including generals. In World War I, it served as a subpost to nearby Fort DuPont. In WWII, its armaments were removed and shipped to forts more in need of their protection.
Delaware acquired the fort in 1947, and today it offers visitors a menagerie of sights and events.
“It’s one of our most unique destinations,” Keller says. “Everyone wants to do the ghost tours, even in the summer. People come to see the military re-enactments and also see ‘a day in the life of Fort Delaware.’ There are also great birding and hiking trails on the island.”
Visitors enjoy seeing the daily cannon shooting and come out to watch the old-time baseball game featuring the Diamond State Base Ball Club, a vintage team that dates to the 1860s. They can participate in and view the annual “Escape from Delaware” triathlon and take daily tours to learn more about this key player in American history.
Anyone who consults a U.S. map has no trouble seeing the clearly drawn borders between states. They are clean and inarguable.
But it wasn’t always that way. When the Colonies of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware were established, there weren’t easy-to-administer borders, but people didn’t care too much about that. However, when it came to collecting taxes, the situation became a little more confusing—and dangerous, as disputes sometimes became violent.
In 1763, the Maryland holdings of Lord Calvert and the Delaware and Pennsylvania property of the descendants of William Penn needed demarcation. Enter astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon—both English—who spent four years walking the entire delineation between the properties to create a set border that would eliminate any confusion and quell disputes.
Although most people consider the line as the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania, it begins in Delmar, a town that straddles the Delaware and Maryland border. There, visitors can find a stone marker that sits inside an iron-and-brick pavilion commemorating the beginning of the work. It contains dual crests of the Calvert and Penn families and begins a trail that travelers can follow containing markers every mile.
“It’s one of the sites in Delaware that history buffs just have to see,” Keller says.
Although the border was surveyed again a few times throughout the ensuing 200-plus years, the original boundaries generally prevail today. Interestingly, when the report was filed to the British Crown in 1768, Mason and Dixon’s names didn’t appear in it, and the “Mason–Dixon Line” didn’t become part of the historical vernacular until the 19th century.
Anyone interested in making trouble for the British Colonial rulers in the New World would have been able to find plenty of opportunity—and co-conspirators—at the Golden Fleece Tavern in Dover. It was established in 1733 and served as a gathering place for people looking to throw off the yoke of British tyranny.
“People came together there and decided to break off from the British,” Keller says.
Many important decisions were made there throughout the tavern’s history, in addition to the Revolutionary planning and scheming. It served as the meeting place for the Delaware Assembly’s Upper House, the Legislative Council. Although formal government action there was eventually suspended, the tavern remained a landmark and a key part of Delaware’s history. In fact, legislators there voted to ratify the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which established Delaware as the First State.
The original building stood until 1830, when it was demolished, but it was rebuilt a few blocks away and continues to be a stop for history aficionados and anyone looking for a good meal. Legend has it that the tavern still sells Dover’s Fordham Beer, just as it did in 1733.
Not far away is the two-story Old State House, part of First State National Park. Built between 1787 and 1792 and remodeled in 1873 and 1976, it served as the sole seat of Delaware’s government from 1792 to 1932 and as Kent County’s courthouse from 1792 to 1873. It serves now as a museum of the state’s rich history, and visitors can tour it seven days a week.
Although nothing that directly impacted the American Revolution and the formation of this nation took place at the Dickinson Plantation, John Dickinson played several key roles in the country’s early years. The son of Judge Samuel Dickinson, a wealthy Quaker tobacco trader who moved his family from Maryland to outside Dover in 1740, John became one of the wealthiest men in the Colonies.
At various times throughout the last part of the 18th century, he served as president of Delaware, a Continental congressman, delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and president of Pennsylvania. He is known as “The Penman of the Revolution” for his series of essays, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. After the Constitution was ratified, Dickinson was one of several authors who wrote essays promoting the document and encouraging its adoption. Dickinson College in Carlisle Pennsylvania, is named for him.
The Early Georgian–style Dickinson House—also known as Poplar Hall—was completed in 1740 on a 13,000-acre plantation. It passed from the Dickinson family to the state of Delaware in the mid-20th century, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961. It is located on Kitts Hummock Road in Dover.
Tours are available to visitors and provide a compelling look at the early days of Delaware and of the United States.