New Castle's Historic District is one of the most well-preserved communities in the United States. With more than 600 historic structures spanning four centuries of architecture, it's an old house lover's paradise!
FOLLOWING EUROPEAN SETTLEMENT IN 1651, NEW CASTLE GREW INTO AN IMPORTANT RIVER TOWN IN THE 18TH AND 19TH CENTURIES
Becoming New Castle New Castle is a city that has continually faced and adapted to change. At various points in history, it has been a colonial capital, a transportation hub, and a center for commerce and industry. The arc that defines Delaware’s unique northern boundary was first surveyed in 1701, and is based on a circle with a 12-mile radius emanating from New Castle. New Castle’s designation as “The Center of the Circle” is significant not only for the purpose of defining boundaries, but also for establishing New Castle as central to life in Delaware. Transportation New Castle was founded by the Dutch in 1651 as a military outpost called Fort Casimir. During the next 31 years, New Castle was alternately governed by the Dutch, Swedish, and British, changing hands five times. Finally under British control in 1682, New Castle and the three counties that make up the present state of Delaware were granted to William Penn by the Duke of York. Though part of the Pennsylvania colony, Penn granted the “Three Lower Counties on Delaware” their own assembly in 1704. New Castle became the center of colonial government and the courts in the Three Lower Counties. In June of 1776, when Delaware separated permanently from Pennsylvania and declared independence from Great Britain, New Castle became Delaware’s first state capital. “Separation Day” is still celebrated every June in New Castle with parades, fireworks and other activities. New Castle was an important hub in the mid-Atlantic transportation network of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With its small harbor on the southern end of the Delaware River, New Castle thrived as mercantile & passenger ships and packet boats sailed towards Philadelphia or out to sea. Land and rail routes were also important to transportation development in the city. New Castle was located on the route from Philadelphia to Baltimore, and later Washington. Stagecoaches traveled along a turnpike between New Castle and Frenchtown (Elkton), Maryland, connecting the Delaware River with the Chesapeake Bay. In 1831, the stagecoaches were replaced by the New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad – one of the nation’s first railroads. In the 20th century, trolley lines connected New Castle with other area towns and cities like Wilmington. Regional travelers again were routed through New Castle as ferries served to connect the town to points in New Jersey, and served as a vital link in the travel route between New York City and Norfolk, Virginia. Business & Industry In its heyday, New Castle’s transportation system provided opportunities for businesses to serve travelers and supply ships. Local merchants located their establishments near the waterfront in order to serve and profit from incoming traffic. Taverns and inns provided workers, sailors, and passengers with food, drink, and lodging. Merchants supplied outgoing ships with necessary supplies, such as livestock, before departing for extended voyages, while others purchased goods from incoming ships for resale to local residents. The river also provided an opportunity for New Castle to develop a thriving fishing industry. Until the beginning of the 20th century, shad and sturgeon fishing along the Delaware provided the residents of New Castle with a significant source of income. New Castle’s fishing industry died out around World War I due to river pollution and increased shipping traffic. In the second half of the 19th century, after transportation-related opportunities disappeared, New Castle looked toward industrialization for its economic future. Industries established here included flour, cotton and woolen mills, iron works, a steam engine works, umbrella and glove factories, steel mills, and an aircraft plant. Small businesses that served New Castle’s industrial workers prospered during this time as well. Grocers, butchers, milliners, bakers, shoemakers, harness makers, clothiers, jewelers, lumber yards, dairies, pharmacies, physicians and others made New Castle a self-sufficient town. Eventually, however, local industry closed, and New Castle residents began to commute to Wilmington and elsewhere for work. Automobile-centric development pulled commerce away from New Castle’s downtown businesses toward regional shopping centers and larger stores, eventually forcing the closure of most of New Castle’s essential businesses, and turning the city into a bedroom community. Diversity New Castle’s original Dutch settlers were soon followed by people from other European countries including Sweden, Finland, England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. By the late 17th century, New Castle’s population was a mix of nationalities – a microcosm of what the United States would eventually become. Europeans, notably the Dutch, brought enslaved Africans to America beginning in the 17th century. Enslaved Africans were in New Castle as early as 1662, and the town’s population of enslaved people grew through the early 18th century, until by the middle of the 18th century, one-third of the population of Southern New Castle County was enslaved. Beginning in the late 18th century, a trend toward manumission, or granting freedom to enslaved people, took hold in New Castle. By 1860, only 3% of Black individuals in New Castle County were enslaved, and none of them lived in the town of New Castle. Bolstered by their local abolitionist Quaker populations, both New Castle and Wilmington played significant roles in the Underground Railroad network that helped enslaved people flee north. Thomas Garrett, a prominent Wilmington Quaker, was tried at the New Castle Court House for assisting in the Underground Railroad. Industrialization in the nineteenth century attracted new immigrant groups to New Castle – particularly from Eastern Europe – including Poles, Austrians, Russians, and Lithuanians. Around the turn of the 20th century, Italian immigrants began arriving in New Castle, attracted by employment with the railroad and steel mills. Today, the city still has a close-knit Italian community centered around Ninth and Clayton Streets in the Shawtown neighborhood. Preservation in New Castle The preservation of the history, architecture and landscapes of New Castle began in the early 20th century and continues to be a focus of the city. Prompted by the work of the WPA Federal Writers Project to document the historic buildings of New Castle, a group of concerned citizens raised funds to buy the Amstel House in 1929, the town’s first formal preservation effort. This group evolved into the New Castle Historical Society. Today, the New Castle Historical Society is joined in preserving the town by all of the residents and property owners in the historic district, community organizations, the Delaware Historical Society, the Trustees of the New Castle Common, the City of New Castle and the State of Delaware. The City government supports historic preservation primarily through the Historic Area Commission. All new exterior construction projects in New Castle’s historic district require approval from the Historic Area Commission before a building permit will be issued. This review process helps ensure that New Castle preserves its historic integrity and character.
NEW CASTLE, 1946
Highlights from Albert Kruse's Photographic Survey
of New Castle's Downtown Area
Albert Kruse was a Wilmington architect, artist and historic preservationist. He worked on many restoration and design projects in New Castle including the Dutch House, New Castle Court House, and Presbyterian Church. He was also the director for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) in Delaware. In 1932, he published New Castle Sketches a collection of lithographs of New Castle's colonial buildings.
In 1946, Kruse completed a photographic survey of New Castle's historic downtown area. Scroll through the gallery below to see some of the buildings Kruse photographed. Many of them are now gone or substantially altered since the time of his survey.