September/October 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 6
New Castle, Delaware, may be the closest thing to a ghost town on the East Coast. It was never deserted, of course; no place in the East ever is. But it had a rich and turbulent history until about a century and a half ago, after which history turned and went elsewhere, leaving the place almost fossilized as the colonial capital and handsome Federal-era town it had once been.
Turn off Delaware Route 9—the usual noisy highway with its cluttered commercial strip—two miles south of the Delaware Memorial Bridge and you plunge into a warren of narrow streets lined with centuries-old houses. After several blocks you emerge on a village green platted by Peter Stuyvesant in 1655 and dominated at one end by an Anglican church built in 1703 and at the other by a 1732 courthouse where the colonial assembly governed, where the Declaration of Independence was read in 1776, and where the first constitution of the state of Delaware was drafted later the same year.
Arriving at New Castle is like stumbling on Williamsburg without the trappings. With its brick-sidewalked streets leading down to the water and its eighteenth-century houses and open places, it seems to have survived untouched by accident. That isn’t true, of course, but its restoration has been as low-keyed as it has been fastidious. The Delawareans who have preserved New Castle have kept quiet about a place that the armies of three European nations once battled over.
This spot along the Delaware River was first settled in 1651, when Peter Stuyvesant, recently established as governor general of New Amsterdam, sailed in with a small military force to rout some Swedes who had settled not far off around Wilmington. He built a fort on the future site of New Castle; the Swedes captured the fort in 1651, and in 1655 Stuyvesant returned, recaptured it, laid out streets for the town, named it New Amstel, and brought to a close forever the minor presence of Sweden in North America. In 1664, the year the British converted New Amsterdam into New York, a boatload of British took New Amstel by force and renamed it New Castle. The Dutch, like the Swedes, came back for one last fling at conquest in 1674 but held on for only a year.
Strolling through the town on a windy morning, I first ambled through the leaf-strewn village green, which reminded me of Harvard Square without its larger buildings or encroaching city. Alongside the green run a pair of tree-lined cobbled streets with a narrow lawn between them that served as the town marketplace as early as 1654. I stepped past the 1707 brick Presbyterian church—the site of a flea market that day—and turned onto Delaware Street at the head of the green.
The three-story brick courthouse on Delaware Street, which dominates the main square, was the center of colonial life in New Castle, the first capital of Delaware. I didn’t stop there at first; I wanted to see the Delaware River waterfront two blocks off. Little is there except a small parking area and a big view across the broad river mouth to New Jersey, but this is the site of the fort behind which the town grew—rising river waters have covered all its remains—and at this place in 1682 William Penn took his first step on American soil, accepting possession of his massive land grant (Pennsylvania and Delaware) in a solemn ceremony called the livery of seizin, in which he was handed symbolic bits of “turf, twig, soyl, and water” from agents of the Duke of York.
As I looked out at the river, an autumn storm approached across the water, kicking up whitecaps and foaming at the shore. I watched it until the wind came in like a wall, almost knocking me over and sending branches and garbage cans hurtling through the air. I retreated onto The Strand, New Castle’s loveliest street of old houses, almost all of them brick. Many of the newest houses on the Strand were built after a fire swept through the street in 1824.
As the rain whipped in, I found refuge in the George Read House, the town’s finest home, which was open, as it is most days, as a museum. A Philadelphia-style late-Georgian mansion, it was built in 1804 by George Read II, the son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and was first restored in the 1920s by Philip D. Laird, a broker from Wilmington.
The house’s current caretakers, employees of the state historical society, have imaginatively restored some of it to its original elegant Federal style and some of it to the Lairds’ Colonial Revival style. Across the front hall from each other are two dining rooms, one as George Read had it in the early nineteenth century, the other as the Laird family had it in their thickly encrusted version of the early nineteenth century. In the basement Philip Laird’s Prohibition-era taproom—part Colonial, part rathskeller, bringing together elements of the open-hearth kitchen and your own basement den—has been as lovingly restored as the plaster mantelpiece friezes and the punch-and-gouge wood detailing upstairs.
The Lairds helped preserve a town that had largely languished since colonial days. The first blow to the colonial capital’s eminence was struck during the Revolution, when the state assembly fled south to Dover, never to return. Wilmington, five miles north, with a far better harbor and not hemmed in by marshes, quickly grew into a bigger and more important city. In 1832 one of the nation’s first railroads was built to link the Chesapeake Bay to New Castle and the Delaware—its original ticket office, a little shed, stands near the waterfront on Delaware Street—but before long the tracks were leading to Wilmington instead. In 1881, in the final indignity, even the county seat was moved to the city up north.
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.
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.