New Castle-on-delaware

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By the time I left the George Read House, the storm had ended as abruptly as it had begun, and the temperature had dropped. I bundled up and headed back toward the courthouse, passing by an 1809 federal arsenal that now contains an innlike restaurant and walking under the high archway that connects Market Street to Delaware Street.

The courthouse, I soon realized, was where I should have begun my tour. The compact and austere three-story Georgian building has been restored exactly to the way it appeared in an 1804 drawing by Benjamin Henry Latrobe. As the center of the town’s life and importance, the courthouse gives the best sense of its long history. New Castle approached its height of prosperity under William Penn’s rule, but the area’s residents, rankling under governance from far-off Philadelphia, lobbied for and were granted self-rule. In 1704 the three counties now known as Delaware were given their own assembly; Delaware’s dominion was surveyed to include all the lands within twelve miles of the octagonal dome on the just-built New Castle courthouse; the arc thus drawn still serves as the northern boundary of the state.

Arriving at New Castle is like stumbling on Williamsburg without the trappings. It seems to have survived untouched by accident.

After I left the courthouse, I had time to visit two more important houses open as museums. The first was the Amstel House, a stately home built in 1680 and enlarged in 1738. An early governor and his family lived there, and George Washington stopped by to attend a wedding in 1784. I went from there to the oldest home in town, a little Dutch house that is the only unchanged survivor from the seventeenth century, a stark reminder of the hardscrabble life of that time.

Today New Castle is both a museum town and a bedroom suburb of Wilmington. Restorations and suburbs tend to have in common their furtherance of genial domestic life with the real struggle of existence removed, so it’s not surprising that the town, lying by the waters of a widening river, its main street lined with cozy antiques shops and modest town offices, is a very peaceful place to visit. Except for the automobiles on the street, it looks virtually untouched by our century. Ancient battles and power struggles hover in the air and in the walls of its unaltered streets and houses, but the serious strife ended centuries ago.

— Frederick Alien TO PLAN A TRIP