Town With a Past

New Castle, Del., is proud of its historical heritage, and has preserved it beautifully.

September 26, 2004|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For many of us Marylanders, New Castle, Del., ranks as little more than a blip - an interstate exit you rush past on your way to Wilmington, Philadelphia or New York.

And what a shame.

With its cobblestone streets, sweeping views of the Delaware River, grassy commons and rich architectural heritage, New Castle's historic district ranks in my book as one of the finest in the mid-Atlantic region.

It's got history: William Penn first set foot in North America here in 1682.

It's got characters: Daniel Boone, the Marquis de Lafayette, Harriet Tubman and George Washington, chief among them.

And it's got style: With architecture spanning four centuries, New Castle is, well, so yesterday.

But the most remarkable thing about New Castle is that this isn't a place that is paying homage to the past. It is the past.

In the early 1960s, the town adopted a stringent zoning code, one of the first in the country to focus on historic preservation. And long before that, William Penn himself, then the world's largest individual landowner, agreed that the town Green, common land that originally served as pasture for residents' cows and sheep, should forever remain public open space. Today, it is still the focal point of town life, its heartbeat.

And the Battery, swampland until it was filled and developed in 1939, is a glorious waterfront park with a two-mile nature walk, a playground and a pier that occasionally plays host to the Kalmar Nyckel, a re-creation of the tall ship that brought the first Swedish settlers to Delaware in 1638.

With so many historic towns in the region fending off developers, this intact little district and its startling open space do raise the question: Can it last? Will condos one day replace the playground and all those park benches?

"Never," says John F. Klingmeyer, the mayor for 32 years. "No one would dare."

It's that kind of attitude that has kept the New Castle historic district, just 70 miles north of Baltimore, pristine. Consider this local legend:

In the 1920s, when John D. Rockefeller Jr. was looking for a historic town to turn into his little "wonderland," as one architectural historian here puts it, his planners put an X on every Victorian house in the district, designating them for demolition. Rebuffed by the citizenry, Rockefeller instead went to Williamsburg, Va.

Even today, Williamsburg is something of a dirty word here.

"We are not looking to be Williamsburg. We really like a light touch by visitors. We don't want tourism to change the core of the town's really hospitable, low-key look. And, yes, that's a real delicate balance," notes Bruce Dalleo, director of the New Castle Historical Society.

"But the essence of New Castle is you are in an authentic mid-Atlantic village which has residents and shops and historic houses, and it's the first capital of the state of Delaware," Dalleo adds. "But it's a real, living, breathing town. I'm extremely drawn by its authenticity. There's no reconstruction here. And there's not the gloss of a Williamsburg."

Delaware Today magazine called it right recently when it described New Castle, one of the oldest towns in the 13 Colonies, as "colonialism without the commercialism." There are a few antiques shops and a few good restaurants, but retail is not New Castle's strong suit. Its signature, as Dalleo put it, is its authenticity - unspoiled, unhurried, uncompromising.

Centuries of history

New Castle was founded by the Dutch in 1651 as Fort Casimir. The Swedes overtook it not long after, naming it Fort Trinity. Then in 1655, the Dutch countered with an assault and regained the strategically located fort, this time calling the settlement New Amstel, the Dutch capital of the region. In 1674, the British, for the second time actually, took over what was by then known as New Castle.

Enter William Penn, who in 1682 received New Castle as part of a huge land grant from the Duke of York as repayment of debt. (There is a marker at the foot of Delaware Street where Penn landed.)

When Delaware broke away from Pennsylvania in 1704, New Castle became the Colonial capital. It became Delaware's first state capital in 1776, short-lived because the capital was moved to Dover one year later.

The Federal period that followed the Revolution was a prosperous one for New Castle, which turned into a major transportation hub, first for its overland toll road, then for its railway. Eventually, however, the long-distance rail lines laid between Baltimore and Philadelphia through Wilmington left New Castle out of the loop. Economic decline followed.

Mayor Klingmeyer, whose grandfather and father served on the town council, says historic New Castle remained virtually untouched until it was rediscovered in the 1920s. Klingmeyer remembers boom times as a youth when there were movie houses, shops and as many as eight to 12 ferryboats a day carrying passengers across the river between Delaware and New Jersey.

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