Begin your visit at the New Castle Visitor Center at the Arsenal.
We'll help you plan your visit, schedule tours and explore the history
of Delaware's colonial capital.
BUILT AS PART OF DELAWARE'S COASTAL DEFENSES IN 1809, THE ARSENAL IS NOW HOME TO THE NEW CASTLE HISTORICAL SOCIETY
In the first decade of the 19th century relations with the United Kingdom deteriorated due to interference with American trade with Europe, impressment of American sailors, agitation of native populations on the frontier - as well as opportunities for American expansion on the North American continent. Congress declared war on the United Kingdom on June 18, 1812. The British responded with an economically crippling blockade that would eventually extend the full-length of the Eastern seaboard. As a coastal state with important resources including the Brandywine grist mills and the DuPont powder mills, Delaware seemed a natural target for British forces. Indeed beginning in March 1813, the British began a blockade of the Delaware Bay, and began conducting raids along the shore and disrupting trade and shipping. They burned ships at Lewes, and following the refusal of Delaware leaders to sell them supplies, began a bombardment of that town that lasted 22 hours. Some damage was inflicted upon Lewes totaling about $2,000 at the time. In May the British burned Havre de Grace, and attacked nearby settlements including Frenchtown – just 16 miles from New Castle. So people were rightfully concerned about a British move against New Castle – it was a very real possibility. By the time the War of 1812 started, the Arsenal already existed. The Arsenal was constructed by the Federal Government to supply local river defenses, including those at what is today Battery Park, that were intended to protect the port of New Castle and other ports further upriver. Additional fortifications were created at The Rocks in Wilmington, and fortifications were planned for Pea Patch Island, but really were not completed until after the war. Construction was completed on the Arsenal between 1809 and 1811 on land that was owned by the Trustees of the Market Square. As originally constructed, the Arsenal was a one-story building with a gable roof and attic. The interior of the building was a single large room. Surprisingly, an 1822 painting in our collection shows windows in the building – unusual for a military storehouse. At each end of the building were entrances to allow wagons with supplies to come in to the building, unload, then leave without having to turn around. Supplies for the Arsenal came from Philadelphia and included such items as cannonballs, grape shot, gunpowder, carriages, muskets, haversacks, etc. Responsibility for the defense of New Castle was given to Revolutionary War veteran Caleb Bennett, who had experience commanding infantry, artillery and militia forces. Bennett was made colonel of the militia at New Castle, and quartermaster here at the Arsenal. At this time Delaware had about 7,500 men available for military duty. Militia units were brought into preparation at various locations throughout the state including here at New Castle. Four gunboats were brought to New Castle about the time of the bombardment of Lewes. In 1813, 250 stands of arms – or complete weaponry for one man – were sent from Philadelphia to New Castle. The building remained a military storehouse even after the War of 1812 ended. It finally ceased to be used for munitions storage in the late 1820s. In 1831 a fire at Fort Delaware required the evacuation of all the troops station on Pea Patch Island. Two companies of troops, about 100 men, were moved into the building in early 1831. Enlisted men were quartered inside the Arsenal while officers stayed in available rental housing nearby. They also rented space for a hospital, guard house, storehouse and stables. To prepare the Arsenal the men built partitions dividing the building into 2 kitchens, 2 mess rooms, and two rooms for general use. They also constructed bunks for sleeping. The attic was used for storage. The troops remained here for over a year, finally leaving in June 1832. The Arsenal went through a variety of uses next: -In about 1832 or ‘33 the building was used a hospital for cholera patients; -Following this it was used by U.S. customs and revenue officials, the New Castle & Frenchtown RR Company, U.S. Dept of Engineers for tool storage and quarters for workers. In 1836 it was turned over to the Engineers Department exclusively. In 1843, the Arsenal fell out of use by the Federal Government following the discovery of a problem with the deed – or rather lack of one – that transferred the property to the U.S. Government. Without a clear deed the people of New Castle decided that the building should remain standing but never be used for military storage or quartering of troops again. In 1852, the building came under the control of Trustees of New Castle Common’s Committee on Education. They planned to use the building for a new girl’s school. It took a few years to make the changes necessary for the building's new use. This is when The Arsenal first took on the shape that we are familiar with today. A second-story was added and four large classrooms, about 43’ x 25’ built, a large hall with staircase was also added, the windows were to be enlarged to 4’ x 8’ and two windows added in the upper hall to light it and the staircase. And to top it all off a large cupola was added to help cool the building. Classes at the Arsenal, now known as School No. 1. probably started in late 1855 or 1856, and was used continuously up until 1930 when the William Penn High School was built. A couple of physical changes occurred to the building during this time: In the 1890s portico was added to the front of the building with a small second floor room located above the front door; and in the 1910s or early 1920s, a large two-story rear addition was added – this is the present location of the building’s kitchen and upstairs restrooms. Around 1936, The Arsenal was remodeled to be more in keeping with the “colonial” character of the town. The oversized cupola from the 1850s was replaced with a more proportional one, and the room above the front portico was removed entirely. In the 20th century, its varied usage continued – it was used by the National Youth Administration as their headquarters, and as offices for the Bellanca Aircraft Corporation. The Arsenal was again used as a school in the 1940s and 1950s. The Presbyterian Church made use of it for their Sunday School while their meetinghouse was being renovated, before the Christian Education Building was constructed. Sometime in the 1950s the building came under the ownership of the State of Delaware. It was first leased as a restaurant in 1963, and operated under a number of names and owners until a few years ago. The New Castle Historical Society is now the tenant of The Arsenal, and we hope that we will be able to celebrate the rich history of the building while adding a little of our own.
NEW CASTLE VISITOR CENTER
AT THE ARSENAL
Our Visitor Center is the place to pick up visitor information, buy tour and museum tickets, shop our museum store, and watch our orientation film.
PLAN YOUR VISIT
We can help you plan your visit to New Castle whether you have an hour, a day or a weekend! We have maps and self-guided tours, an orientation exhibit and film, and can help you find shopping and dining options while you're here!
Stop in to buy tickets for the Amstel House & Dutch House Museums - or the Cobblestone Pass that includes the Read House & Gardens too!
We also offer walking tours (seasonally), special events and lectures that begin right here!
If you love local history as much as we do, you'll want to stop at our museum store to pick up a New Castle-inspired souvenir or gift! We carry history books, local art, gourmet goodies, classic snacks and vintage toys!