Delaware County: Where Pennsylvania Began

County Feature is a series of articles on each county in Pennsylvania and its history.

Delaware County is part of the densely populated belt around Philadelphia, stretching from the city’s western boundary to the circular Delaware state line. Covering approx­imately 185 square miles, it is the third smallest Pennsylvania county yet the fourth largest in population. Its southern boundary is formed by the Delaware River, from which the county takes its name.

The site of early Dutch and Swedish settlements, Delaware County was the first seat of government under both Swedish and English jurisdiction. As “Uplandt,” renamed “Chester” Coun­ty, it was the capital of Penn’s proprie­tary government during the formation of the Commonwealth and has played a significant economic and social role in the state’s history. On September 26, 1789, the present county of Delaware was created from the older, southern portion of Chester County and its boundaries have remained stable since that time. A Board of County Commis­sioners, created in 1820, replaced the earlier system of decentralized justices, grand juries and assessors, and a home rule charter was approved in 1975.

Delaware County’s economic base has been steadily changing from agriculture, which accounted for eighty-five percent of the land use as late as 1900, to heavy and service industry, with its associated network of retail trade. This trend, which began in the mid-nineteenth cen­tury, was strengthened by the material demands of three major wars. The coun­ty’s eastern section was heavily developed in the 1930s and 1940s, and the housing boom of the post-World War II period has turned two-thirds of its land into suburbia.

The Delaware estuary attracted Euro­pean notice in the 1620s as a source for the lucrative fur trade. The Dutch first established seasonal trading posts along both banks of the river, dealing with the Lenni Lenape Indians and even­tually with the inland Minquas, who brought their pelts east along a centuries-old tribal trade trail. The tremendous profits, up to 3,000percent, caused considerable rivalry among mer­cantile groups, with the Swedish West India Company eventually gaining juris­diction over the Delaware River valley. In order to assure local control, the com­pany established a chain of permanent settlements manned by conquered Fin­nish dissidents. The capital of this pro­vince, consisting of the government house, village, church and school (the first European institutions in the middle colonies), was built in 1643 at Tinicum Island. Settlement, however, was not rapid, due at least in part to the fact that all profits from trading, agriculture, fishing and milling belonged to the Company and not to the individual.

After 1655, the Delaware basin fell again under Dutch rule, becoming English when the Duke of York con­quered New Amsterdam in 1664. Still, there was little growth in the river set­tlements until new religious persecutions in England made emigration attractive. By 1677, a small group of English Quakers had settled in Upland (now Chester) and Chichester (now Marcus Hook), having spilled over from the larger settlements in West Jersey. Upland was the only major village in Penn’s new colony and therefore it was to Upland that Penn traveled on Octo­ber 28, 1682 (see “William Penn’s Landing“).

At Upland, renamed Chester by Penn, the first courthouse and meeting were built. There, also, the first court sessions were conducted under the new owner and the first laws of the Common­wealth, including the “Great Law” (from which many American civil liber­ties stem), were passed. A revolutionary participatory government, free elections and the establishment of a Council, half of which was comprised of pre-Penn residents, were all established, as were laws of inheritance, admirality rights and land tenure. It was in Chester that, during the height of the New England witchcraft scare, a jury not only cleared a woman of sorcery but also declared that there was no such thing as witch­craft. Another liberal precedent was set when, in 1689, an all-woman jury was impaneled, an event not repeated until 1878 in suffragist Wyoming.

The port of Chester remained the pro­vincial capital until March 1683, when the seat of government moved to Phila­delphia. As county seat for one of the first three districts established by Penn, however, Chester rivaled Philadelphia as a port and distribution point until the nineteenth century. The 1724 Court­house, now a historic property owned by the PHMC, is the oldest public building in continuous use in the U.S.

Penn planned his Commonwealth as a series of concentric villages radiating out from Philadelphia. Chester was one of these; another laid out by the Proprietor was Newtown, now Newtown Square. The plan of country estate and town lot was not a pattern that appealed to many settlers, however, and few of these “greene countrie townes” were ever built. Of the colony’s four chartered markets, Delaware County claims two – Chester’s market square is now covered by a modern bank building, but the 1701 Market in Marcus Hook re­mains as laid out.

Delaware County is comprised of one­-third coastal plain and two-thirds rolling uplands, well watered and wooded in colonial times. While the small Dutch and Swedish settlements rarely penetrated beyond the river meadows, the new Penn purchasers soon laid claim to the entire area. The land was rich, arable soil and held abundant building material such as granite, feldspar, serpentine and clay for bricks.

Originally, settlement began in river towns, which were subject to periodic visitations by pirates, including the in­famous Blackbeard. By 1715, however, such raiders had been driven out by local merchants acting to protect growing coastal shipping. As Pennsylvania was settled further inland, river towns blossomed and the road networks from these ports spread. For two centuries, the county exported major amounts of foodstuffs, tanned hides, leather ac­coutrements, iron, lumber and meat.

Throughout the eighteenth century, county inland settlements grew substan­tially, which led to resentment by those living away from the coast at having to travel to the other end of the county for market and court. Finally, in 1789 after much acrimony and an armed raid with cannon, Delaware County was formed from part of the original Penn county of Chester. The eastern and western borders were neatly formed by creeks, as was the southern boundary by the state line and the Delaware River. The nor­thern border followed original Penn township lines until the western section, where individual landowners were allow­ed to choose their allegiance. Thus the boundary is ramshackle and there are Thornbury and Birmingham Townships in both present counties.

As the city of Philadelphia grew in population and commercial success, city gentlemen established large estates in the county, sometimes with support villages. By the late nineteenth century, the at­tractive countryside and the ease of transportation, facilitated by numerous railroad and trolley branch lines, pro­duced a plethora of new communities. Over half of the county’s present forty­-nine municipalities were founded in a thirty-year period. Some, such as Ridley Park, were laid out by the railroads as communities for the middle- and upper­-level management, while others, like Aldan, grew up around a school district or a parish.

During the early years, the county was directly touched by war but once. Because of the large amount of grain and fodder produced there and the quantity of animals held by residents, the county was frequently the scene of raids conducted by both sides during the Revolution. These raids, however, did not compare in size or destructiveness with the battle fought along the Brandy­wine Creek on September 11, 1777. Following the battle, the wounded from both sides were scattered in makeshift hospitals. One of these, a residence then sheltering the Gray family of Philadel­phia, became known for the exceptional care its occupants showed to war casual­ties, and the “Gray Ladies” nursing organization was born.

The defeat of the American forces at the Battle of Brandywine prompted their retreat to Chester and beyond, through the eastern part of the county to the far side of the Schuylkill. The British press­ed forward and, following the capture of the two forts protecting Philadelphia, they occupied the capital city. Because the Delaware River remained blocked by cheaveaux-de-frise, Chester served as the main port for all British troops and supplies throughout the winter of 1777-78.

From the early subsistence fanning of the Swedes, county land proved fertile, not only for the production of grains and fruits, but also for the grazing of dairy and meat livestock. Five years after settlement under Penn, large amounts of foodstuffs were being exported to other colonies, the West Indies and Europe.

In addition to agriculture, Delaware County made a major contribution to the nation through its many mills and industries. Five major streams and their tributaries (which resemble the spread fingers of a left hand with its heel resting on the Delaware shore) flow southeasterly, dropping through granite ridges toward the coastal marshes and providing a multitude of mill sites within a small area. The region not only possess­ed industrial water power, but also had access to major river and land transpor­tation routes, making early development attractive.

The first Pennsylvania mill was built by the Swedes in 1643 at Darby’s “Point of Rocks,” and the sole Proprietary mill, under the supervision of Caleb Pusey, was established at Upland. But, these monopolies were short-lived. By the late 1680s, no creek had fewer than five mills busily grinding grain or sawing wood for export to a lumber-starved Europe. These mills usually experienced both serial ownership and a succession of uses. Starting as grist or saw mills, they became paper, tobacco, then cotton or woolen mills, ending by specializing in one step of a product finished within a larger mill complex. Repeated fire and flooding merely saw the structures rebuilt. During the eighteenth century, Delaware County had a greater concen­tration of mills than any comparably sized area in the new nation. By the early nineteenth century, the county lead America in volume and variety of out­put.

Shipbuilding, which had been ini­tiated in the middle colonies when Governor Printz of New Sweden built an official vessel in 1643 at Tinicum, thrived on the many tidal creeks and in shore communities. The production of coastal traders and fishing vessels was followed by the construction of deep­water ships and gunboats for the Con­tinental Navy. The Delaware River’s preeminence as a major freight port led to larger facilities and new maritime designs. Here, Joshua Humphreys of Haverford, the “Father of the Navy,” designed the famous frigates Constitu­tion, United States and Constellation.

Foremost in the late nineteenth cen­tury was the Roach Shipyard of Chester, a firm which pioneered in the construc­tion of iron steamships, double-steel hulls and the screw propeller. Roach’s was also responsible for the design and building of the prototypes of the “Great White Fleet,” of which the U.S.S. Olympia is the sole survivor. The Hog Island Shipyard, which built many of the naval and mercantile vessels for World War I, continued the tradition of innovative shipbuilding, as did the Sun Ship yards, which have as part of their facilities the world’s largest drydock. Other developments in the industry which occurred in the county include the design and fabrication of the hydrofoil and the first supertanker.

Delaware County has also played a key role in the development of commer­cial energy. In 1810 at Providence Mills, Col. George Shoemaker disgustedly dumped some Mauch Chunk coal on a forge fire – coal he had been unable to market anywhere in Philadelphia. The next morning’s roaring fire demon­strated the commercial possibilities of anthracite coal and a new Pennsylvania industry was spawned.

The county’s network of deepwater ports and railroads encouraged the placement of oil refineries and process­ ing plants along the Delaware water­ front, beginning in 1905. Today, the Marcus Hook area boasts thirteen major refineries. In associated activities, Westinghouse builds steam turbines in its Lester plant and the county’s Philadelphia Electric generating plant was one of the first facilities of its kind. New energy possibilities were showcased when the Ridley Park Post Office became the first public building to utilize solar energy, a practice soon followed by a bank in Lansdowne which pioneered in the use of solar energy as its main source for power.

Certainly one of the oldest American industries still in continuous operation under the same family is the Rhoads tan­nery, founded in Marple in 1702. Another enterprise, considered by many to be the oldest sawmill in the U.S., still operates in Haverford. In fact, many county industries have been well established for over 100 years. Three local powder mills supplied more than one-third of the Continental Army’s needs during the Revolution, while the Nitre Hall Mills of Haverford rivaled the duPont complex during the early nineteenth century. In 1911, the world’s first synthetic fiber plant was built in Marcus Hook by the American Viscose Com­pany. Here rayon and nylon were first introduced to the world.

Other interesting firsts include the creation of cream cheese and the com­mercial growing of mushrooms in Con­cord, the invention of book matches in Middletown and the first roller skate factory, built in Glen Mills. Strathhaven art paper grew from the products of the papermill by that name in Springfield, and Elias Howe reputedly invented the sewing machine while working in a cot­ton factory in Cardington. Delaware County has provided kaolin for fine porcelain, coated art paper and paint; garnet for emery boards and friction paints; mica for insulation and counter­tops; and millstones and whetstones.

In addition to providing food and leather, county livestock pulled military wagons for Braddock and Washington, towed streetcars for most northern cities and provided transportation power for industry. Delaware County horses were also used in regional fox bunt clubs, such as the nation’s oldest, the Rose Tree Hunt Club, founded in Upper Providence. The Riddle textile fortune gave rise to the Riddle racing stable in Middletown, which produced such win­ners as Man o’ War and War Admiral.

Many of the early commercial efforts have modern descendants. For example, the Swedes established dairying, and nineteenth century firms such as the Cornucopia Dairy made products which won international and graced the tables of the White House for thirty years. Today, that tradition is carried on by WaWa, Inc. The second papermill in Pennsylvania, the Ivy Mills in Concord, made paper for Franklin’s Almanac and for all colonial and continental curren­cy. The owners devised the unique paper with colored silk thread still used for American banknotes and developed a chemically sensitive paper for checks. Although this mill is now defunct, the nearby Franklin Mint produces currency for twenty-one nations, in addition to medals and collectables.

Today, county industries range from printing and communication firms, such as Chilton and TV Guide, to industrial giants, like Scott Paper and Sun Oil. The production of meat, once the winter employment of many farmers, is con­tinued by Habersett’s and Medford Franks. Companies representing almost every industry are active within the county’s boundaries. The stimulation of local businesses by three major wars­ – the Civil War and World Wars I and II – not only produced new superhighways but thoroughly commercialized the river tier. Once the county seat was moved from coastal Chester to central Media, founded for this purpose in 1849, the en­tire Delaware shoreline became an at­tractive location for large corporations. Recently, the development of the area has begun to reflect a shift from heavy to service industries, a pattern becoming common throughout the Northeast.

From the beginning, colonists found natural highways provided by the Delaware River and the local creeks and other ready-made roads in the Indian paths. The earliest of these, “Swedes’ Path,” paralleled the Delaware on its western bank, crossed streams at the head of tidewater and became the major north-south route throughout the colo­nial period. This “Southern Post Road,” slightly realigned several times, is now known as U.S. Route 13.

Following the axiom that one never traveled to meeting, to market or to marry across creeks (which were much deeper before 300 years of farming helped deposit silt), most of the early county roads ran north-south, connect­ing inland farms with the commercial waterfront towns. By 1690, fourteen major roads were surveyed under the county court; these remain the major arteries of the mechanized present and few needed widening until the pressures of recent urban sprawl. Turnpikes con­necting the region with areas farther to the west became an early necessity, and the first turnpike in the nation was laid out across the northern portion of the county. This Lancaster Pike, built in 1792-94 following the old Conestoga Road, remained a toll road until the ex­tension of the national road system in the 1920s. By one historian’s estimate, the route was utilized by eighty-five per­cent of the mid-Atlantic traffic headed to the West.

A new mode of transportation started in Delaware County when the first prac­tical railroad in the U.S. began opera­tion in 1809. Industrialist Thomas Leiper of Nether Providence built a short wooden “railed road” on stone sleepers over which horse drays carried the granite blocks from his quarry to a nearby shipping point. Barely ten years later, the Main Line Works of Naviga­tion, a combined track and canal system linking eastern and western Pennsyl­vania, was built along the northern edge of the county. Like Leiper’s effort, this system originally used horse-drawn cars but eventually became the Pennsy’s famous “Main Line.”

Commercial firms in the area pros­pered with this new transportation and communication link, and three major national rail lines – the Reading (1838), the Baltimore and Ohio (1840) and the Pennsylvania (1857) – were constructed through the southern third of the coun­ty. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Baldwin Locomotive Works, which shipped its products all over the world, moved its plant from Philadelphia to Eddystone. Today, ex­perimental mass transit cars have been designed and built at Boeing, which oc­cupies part of the old Baldwin tract.

Delaware County also has its place in the history of air travel; half of the Philadelphia Airport lies within its borders, including all of the commercial air freight terminal. In 1917, the first seaplane base was established in Essing­ton, and the invention of the helicopter by Sikorski took place in Morton in 1941. Air transportation work is con­tinued by Boeing’s aerospace developments.

The growth of agricultural and indus­trial success brought new waves of immigration to Delaware County. The ethnic variety of the county includes Swedes, Finns, English, Welsh, Scots, Irish, Germans, Slavs, Italians, Greeks and Asiatic boat people. Many national­ities were encouraged to immigrate for their particular skills; the Italians were contracted for stone masonry and vini­culture, the Irish for millwork and horse breeding, and the Slavs for mechanical work.

Free blacks lived in the county prior to the Revolution, most having been freed from slavery by local owners. These blacks played a key economic and military role in gaining nationhood, and at least twelve Underground Railroad stations were active throughout the county. The first black college, Cheyney State, is located in Thornbury, while Chester, a center for black writers and artists in the 1910s to 1930s, is experi­encing a renaissance. Founded by a cot­ton magnate, the Crozer Baptist Semin­ary in Upland provided religious train­ing, with its most notable graduate being Martin Luther King.

The first public library outside of Philadelphia and the second in the na­tion was started in 1743 in Darby, while in the nineteenth century, the county became a favored location for various study centers and private schools. Delaware County colleges include Haverford, Swarthmore, Villanova and Widener, with a score of less well-known schools. Academies, orphanages, sana­toriums and similar institutions, many moving from the city, came to the coun­ty in search of more rural surroundings. Resort hotels proliferated along the river and the ridges. Artists and educational colonies were founded, one of which survives as the community of Rose Valley. Arboreta and the exotic gardens of private estates were planted which still maintain a national reputation.

Noteworthy natives of Delaware County seem to be concentrated in four fields. Despite its Quaker origins, the county has produced distinguished military leaders such as Admirals David Porter, Jr. and Sr., and David Farragut, all of Chester; General Persifor Frazer of the Continental Line; Major Edward Beal, whose U.S. Camel Corps assembl­ed on the Widener campus before assignment in the Southwest; and Marine General Smedley Butler, whose real-life heroics in the early twentieth century provided the plot for Seven Days in May. The nation’s second oldest military academy, now Widener Univer­sity, was founded as the Pennsylvania Military Academy in 1821.

Active in the county’s political life have been Declaration signer John Mor­ton, Governor William Sproul and An­drew McClure, close friend of Abraham Lincoln and organizer of a Republican party structure which has dominated the area for 120 years. Dr. Anna Shaw, a political activist, became an early leader in the suffragist movement. The county also can claim the ancestors of three American presidents (Taylor, Lincoln and Nixon) and the family of Chief Justice John Marshall.

Luminaries from the entertainment field include W. C. Fields of Darby, Ethel Waters of Chester, Dick Clark of Nether Providence and Jim Croce of Upper Darby. The field in which Delaware countians have predominated, however, is the arts. Three major artistic communities were founded at the turn of the century and the area became home to many regionally-known architects and artisans. Numbered among the county’s outstanding artists are Benjamin West, etcher Joseph Pennell, Howard Pyle and others from his Brandywine School, of whom the most distinguished are the members of the Wyeth family.

Delaware County’s population has grown continuously since the first U.S. Census of 1790, adding more than ten percent in every decade except the 1810s and increasing more than twenty percent in twelve of these seventeen decades. This growth rate has exceeded both that of the state and nation since 1900. Now, in this last decade, the population has apparently peaked.

The hardwood forests have dwindled to random woodlots and there are only 135 farms left in the county, most of which lie fallow. Remains of Penn’s Woods can be seen along the creek valleys, however, where muskrat and fox are still trapped and deer come down to drink., Old families with established names live next door to new immigrants, and old structures continue as residences or commercial buildings. The dramatic change from scattered farmsteads, to small-town agricultural life, to bustling suburbia has taken place mostly within the past fifty years, yet autonomy and small-town pride persist. Fought over in the Revolution, repeatedly built over in response to the industrial demands of a growing nation and subdivided for residential development, Delaware County represents 300 years of growth and innovation.


Nancy V. Webster, a resident of Delaware County, received her B.A. magna cum laude from Harvard in 1968 and an M.A. in the museum program of William and Mary University. She is president of the Delaware County Historical Society, preservation planner for Delaware County and secretary­-treasurer for Fellows in American Studies.