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History of the Christina River

Christina River in Wilmington


Sally O’Byrne and Gregory Inskip

The confluence of two rivers is an ideal place for a city to grow, and such is the history of Wilmington and northern New Castle County, Delaware.  The Brandywine River, tumbling downstream from the Piedmont, is a river that provided power to many early industries from gristmills to gunpowder.  The Christina River is not a Piedmont river, but rather is typical of the Coastal Plain; tidal and meandering down to the Delaware for much of its journey.  It is a flood plain river and navigable for many miles and therefore is ideal for transporting goods and people.  The two rivers join in the Coastal plain just short of the Delaware River, and their confluence is near the place where the Swedes landed in 1638, where the first colonial fort was built, and where the first settlement occurred.  Old Swede’s Church, built in 1699 and still an active church, would have been the center of life in the farming community.  An earlier church, Crane Hook, was noted on surveys between 1680 and 1685 on the South side of the Christina, near the Delaware River.  No trace of that church or that early settlement remain in what today is a highly industrialized area.

A Traditional Pathway for Warfare and Trade

When Swedish colonists sailed into the Christina River aboard the Kalmar Nyckel in 1638, the river already was part of a route of warfare and trade between the Lenape (Delaware) Indians along the Delaware River (and tributaries like the Brandywine and Christina) and the Minqua (Susquehannock) Indians on the Susquehanna River to the west.  From their towns on the Susquehanna, the Minquas paddled canoes to the head of the Elk River near present day Elkton, then portaged around Iron Hill near Newark to the Christina, or “Minquaskill,” and continued on paths to where the river became navigable near present day Christiana.  The Minquas used the Christina River to reach the Delaware to raid Lenape villages and to trade furs  with the colonists of New Sweden.  Fur traders from New Sweden visited the Minquas by the same route in reverse.

In the Revolutionary War, British troops followed the same route up the Elk River, around Iron Hill, and on to the Christina River.  There they fought Continental soldiers at the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge on September 3, 1777 before resuming their northward march, eventually defeating the Continental Army at the Battle of the Brandywine and occupying Philadelphia.

Commerce in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries

Throughout the 18th century, the Christina River was an important way for farmers in northern Delaware and adjoining Maryland and Pennsylvania to bring their produce east to the Delaware River and the hungry metropolis of Philadelphia.  Wilmington, Newport, Stanton and Christiana all served and grew by this trade.  A map from 1772 shows marshland and farming along Wilmington’s Coastal Plain rivers and indicates a road between a bridge on the Brandywine (where Market Street is today) and a ferry on the Christina.  The mills on the Brandywine would have transported their goods via the Christina.

Shipbuilding and ship repair have a long history in Wilmington, probably going back to the Swedes.  In 1740, the first vessel for foreign trade, a brig named the Wilmington, was built at the foot of Market Street on the Christina.  It is estimated that between 1726 and 1775, over 300 vessels were built in Delaware shipyards.  In 1789 the British consulate in Philadelphia reported that at least 10 ships had been launched in recent years.  After the nation was founded, trade increased with regular travel between Delaware and points domestic and international.  Wharves were constructed along the Christina to handle the export and import of goods, and there was regular scheduled service to Philadelphia and other places on the Delaware River.

In the first quarter of the 19th Century, cities throughout the world were industrializing, mills were producing more goods, and like many other places, Wilmington grew.  By 1840, Wilmington had four new shipyards, specializing in wooden ships with the innovation of marine railways that could lift the boats out of the water.  Local machinists brought their skill in steam engines and machine tools from Brandywine mills to the Christina and its shipyards.

Other towns on the Christina were not so fortunate.  The opening in 1828 of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal enabled an all-water route for commerce between the Delaware and Chesapeake watersheds.  The old route connecting the Christina and Elk Rivers with a land portage could not compete, and commerce in the towns along the Christina declined.

Wilmington’s Industrial Heyday

Unlike the towns further upstream on the Christina River, Wilmington was not marginalized by the opening of the C & D Canal because railroads provided a good supply line to the city.  The 19th Century gave the City a strategic role connecting commerce to and from the interior with shipping on the Delaware River and beyond.  In 1830, there were 23 miles of rail in the US.  By 1870, there were 53,000 miles.  Small private lines proliferated, but were bought out over time until there were only a few major players.  Three railroad companies competed in Wilmington:  the Reading, the Baltimore and Ohio, and the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the latter two had rail lines along the Christina River.  The Christina River is today home to the architectural legacy of that era, with three buildings designed by Frank Furness on its banks:  the Pennsylvania Railroad Wilmington Station (1907-08) (current Amtrak station), the Pennsylvania Office Building (1905), and the B & O Water Street Station (1887) (now owned by Capital One).  Together, they create one of the largest intact groupings by Furness anywhere in the country.

The combination of steam power in both mills and railroads meant that skilled metal workers and machinists were employed at local companies.  The first steam engines in boats were an innovation and used for auxiliary power, but the wooden hulls leaked from the vibrations and strain.  Looking for a solution and knowing that boilers contained steam pressure, it made sense to clad the boats in iron – thus the rise of iron hulled ships.  The technology for these new iron hulled ships came not from the traditional boat building shops, but from the boiler makers who knew how to work with metal.  Companies that repaired and built railroad cars were the ideal companies to build these ships.

Between 1845 and 1857, 35 iron hulled vessels were built in Wilmington, far more than any other American city, with several large companies dominating the Christina waterfront:  Harlan and Hollingsworth (H&H), Pusey and Jones (P&J), Lobdell, and Jackson and Sharp (J&S).  These companies manufactured diverse products:  railroad cars and parts, ships of all sizes, large rollers for paper and textiles, and other machinery.

In these same years, Wilmington had an active role in not only the actual railroad industry, but also the Underground Railway.  Thomas Garrett and Harriet Tubman aided the escape of hundreds, if not thousands, of slaves.  Many of these people were smuggled through Wilmington, presumably crossing the Christina over the Market Street bridge, which was the only crossing at that time.

In the latter half of the 19th Century, Wilmington shipbuilding continued to thrive even as much of the railroad construction moved to the Midwest.  Wilmington companies, especially P&J, specialized in river steamers, and they had the ability to make ships that could be dismantled, transported, and then reassembled onsite – which made them very popular in South America.  These companies also built luxury private yachts for wealthy clients, and J&S specialized in luxury private railroad cars.

Both H&H and P&J built yachts that won the America’s Cup.  H&H built the first iron hulled winner, the Mischief, in 1879, and she easily defeated her closest rival in 1881.  P&J built the Volunteer in 1887, the first America’s Cup yacht to be built entirely of steel.  She successfully defended the cup against the British in 1888.

Because of the Christina’s role in transportation, warehouses were common along the river, and several leather warehouses served a key role in the importation of raw skins and the export of the finished leather product.  The leather industry was established in the early 1800s, and Wilmington’s specialty was the production of kid leather using imported goatskins, including both primary and finishing production.  Between 1890 and 1900, employment in the leather industries tripled, and by 1910, leather tanning and manufacturing ranked number one in Delaware by both value of products and the number of wages earned.  By the early 20th Century, there were 12 leather locations on or near the Christina.  Leather continued as a major Wilmington industry for the next 50 years.

The Christina in the Twentieth Century

National economic forces contributed to Wilmington’s slow industrial decline in the beginning of the 20th Century, and the city began to change into a corporate center with DuPont’s decision to move its headquarters to Wilmington in 1902.  H&H was absorbed by United States Shipbuilding Company in 1903, and soon after became the Harlan plant of Bethlehem Steel Corporation.  Within a few years, most shipyards failed, and other than P&J, the remaining ones were owned by corporations outside of Delaware with no local community connections.

World War I was not kind to our riverfront.  Many of the ships commissioned for the war effort were “too little, too late,” so they were sold to commercial shippers, and there was a resultant glut.  In 1923, the international Port of Wilmington opened at the confluence of the Christina and Delaware; the same place that the Swedish settlers first landed on the Christina River in 1638.  This was a giant leap of faith in the future of the City of Wilmington as a transportation hub, but the companies that had previously built the ships struggled.  By 1926, H&H discontinued shipbuilding and relied on railroad work.  P&J survived by manufacturing paper machinery.  Dravo Corporation (Dravo) purchased the former H&H shipyards in 1926 and established a barge assembly facility – they were fabricated in Pittsburgh and assembled and launched on the Christina.

World War II brought a new burst of industry to the Christina Riverfront.  Dravo received a number of orders for marine net tenders and caisson gates.  Because of its skill in assembling barges, it was given the contract to build Destroyer Escorts (DE) and Landing Ship Tanks (LST) in 1941.  Dravo expanded its shipyard, erected new office buildings and shops, and expanded its workforce from 700 to 10,500.  By war’s end in 1945, Dravo had launched 5 LST’s and 15 DE’s from the banks of the Christina.  P&J also received orders for War production.  Employment grew to 3000, and P&J built 18 C1-A passenger cargo vessels.  Because of the size of the C1-A (longer than the river was wide), P&J built the City’s first broadside launching way.

At the end of the war, the massive effort ended, and though the companies limped along into the 1960s, they were only shadows of their war time peak.  With the closing of shipbuilding, railroad construction and repair, and leather warehouses, Christina’s riverfront became a conglomeration of skeletal buildings.  By the mid-1970s, little remained and much of the Christina’s industrial past was forgotten.

In 1978, Sally O’Byrne and Priscilla Thompson were given a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation (Maritime Heritage program) to study the history and condition of Wilmington’s riverfront, and they produced Project R.O.W. (Reclaim Our Waterfront), which was a lot-by-lot inventory of the old buildings and their heritage.  One result of this was an innovative zoning change that allowed for mixed-use on the riverfront.  In addition, 20 years later, they used Project R.O.W information and published Wilmington’s Waterfront (Arcadia Press, 1999).

Other events coincided to feature the Christina in new, recreationally centered ways.  In 1980 Wilmington Waterways formed as a tax exempt charity under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.  It promoted waterfront awareness and held several water oriented festivals between 1982-88.  The inaugural meeting of Wilmington Rowing Center (WRC) was July 5, 1984,with Olympic Committee member John Kelly, Jr. in attendance.  Wilmington Youth Rowing Association (WYRA) was founded in 1989, both clubs taking advantage of the broad tidal Christina that was ideal for that sport.  WYRA moved its boathouse to a renovated P&J building in 1998, and in 2014, WRC moved from the outlets to a building across the street from WYRA – the beginning of the Christina’s own ‘Boathouse Row’.

In addition to the establishment of a rowing club, 1984 was the year that the Amtrak (Furness) station was renovated, opening with a gala black-tie affair.  In 1986, the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation was established to create a replica of the ship that founded Wilmington.  It would take 11 years until the tall ship the Kalmar Nyckel launched on September 28, 1997.  Today, the Christina River remains the home port of this tall ship and the foundation which hosts educational programs on the City’s Swedish and shipbuilding heritage.

In 1994, A Vision for the Rivers was published which was the final report of the Governor’s Task Force on the future of the Brandywine and Christina Rivers.  With funding by the State Legislature, the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) was established in 1995, and efforts to create commercial and residential development focused on the Christina.  Part of the vision entailed a wildlife marsh and educational center that would attract families to the riverfront.  The Russell Peterson Wildlife Refuge, managed by the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife, came into existence around the turn of the Century.  The DuPont Environmental Education Center (DEEC), which is operated by the Delaware Nature Society, opened there a decade later.  DEEC is the terminus of the river walk that winds along the Christina through the old Dravo and H&H shipbuilding remnants, through the Harriet Tubman Park, to the Furness-designed Railroad Station and office building.

The RDC continues to oversee and guide commercial and residential development, and actions by DELDOT and a number of private developers have created growth zones along the river.  Today’s urban development has almost eliminated evidence of the river’s industrial past, and the shipbuilding cranes of yesteryear stand sentinel to the restaurants, ball fields, and river walkers of today.

Upstream from the City of Wilmington, much of the watershed has undergone suburban development, but New Castle County is preserving substantial streamside lands for wildlife habitat and human recreation.  Public boat ramps in Newport and along Churchman’s Road open up the upper reaches of the Christina to recreational use.  The Christina Conservancy, founded in 1982, is dedicated to preserving and protecting the Christina along its length.  The annual Christina Clean-up is a continuing project of the Christina Conservancy and DNREC since 1992, and gets upwards of 800 people involved in the county-wide clean-up.


Kauffman, Gerald J. and Michael R. Gallagher, The British Invasion of Delaware, Aug-Sep 1777, www.lulu.com, 2013

Schreuder, Yda, The impact of labor segmentation on the ethnic division of labor and the immigrant residential community: Polish leather workers in Wilmington, Delaware, in the early-twentieth century., Journal of Historical Geography, 16, 4 (1990) 402-424.

Thompson, Priscilla M. and Sally O’Byrne, Wilmington’s Waterfront, Arcadia Publishing, 1999

Urban, Richard, The City that Launched A Thousand Ships, Shipbuilding in Wilmington 1644-1997, Cedar Tree Press 1999

Weslager, C. A., Delaware’s Forgotten River,  Hambleton Co. 1947

Wilmington’s Railroad Heritage, a brochure by the Friends of Furness Railroad District, www.FriendsofFurness.org

John Schoonover, WRC, personal communication

Faith Pizor, WYRA, personal communication

Jim Tevebaugh, personal communication


Plan for the Borough of Wilmington, as referred to in act of Assembly, passed, 6th month 13th, 1772

Crane Hook Church Site and Vicinity, 1787, based on Contemporary surveys, Delaware Writers Project, 1941, Work Projects Administration

Atlas of the State of Delaware, D.G. Beers, published by Pomeroy and Beers, Philadelphia, 1868

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