A large part of this story takes place in or near Brandywine Springs Park which is located about 5 miles from Wilmington, Delaware. Most of the approximately 60 acre of the park sits at the bottom of the red clay valley and is bordered by Faulkland Rd, Newport Gap pike, a neighborhood called The Cedars and a tourist steam railroad called the Wilmington & Western. Today, Brandywine Springs is a county park, It features several pavilions, a couple of baseball diamonds, a basketball court, a playground, a bunch of hiking trails through a dense woods, with a lake and a stream running through it. However, from about 1890 until 1923 it was an amusement park beloved by people near and far. The locals would ride a trolley from Wilmington to enjoy the rides, restaurants and amusements. During its days as a park it was plagued with several fire and floods but ultimately it was the automobile that ended its usefulness as people were able to travel more freely and the park fell out of favor.
I grew up in Brandywine Springs Park, as my father did before me, his mother, and her parents, too. The tradition continues as the next generation of Harrington’s, my two daughters, are growing up there as well. My father was a great teacher and instilled in me a love for the area and its history.
Dad often told me that when he died, he wanted his ashes mixed in with his Doberman's ashes and spread there, "because if there is a heaven, I'll be able to walk that dog through that park forever."
After my father's death in 2013, I asked artist Larry Anderson to paint a picture of my father and Dragon, his doberman walking down the hill from the old New Castle County Workhouse prison tower to the train tracks to capture their last and forever walk down the Valley.
I've been doing research in the park since I was 14. I don't think there is an inch of it I don't know. I've been working with my best friend Tom Gears for the past 5 years digging up as much new information as we could on the area. While searching, we discovered that in 1903 there were 9 motion pictures filmed by the Edison Company in the park. Six more months of research later, we found out that the movies were buried, mislabeled in the Library of Congress. They are the oldest, existing films ever made in Delaware and we were the only people who knew where they were. As a result, we made a half hour documentary titled, “The Lost Motion Pictures of Brandywine Springs". My true heartbreak was, I didn't find the movies until after my father had passed away.
Knowing I could never share them with my father, I have been trying to share them with as many other people as I can. Realizing that people may not be as familiar with the park as myself and the locals are, I've also been working on a ten-minute video telling the history of the park so people will have a better understanding of why these historic films are so important. Brandywine Springs is home to me; it has always been my safe place.
All of that was about to change.
On May 29th 2019 I was at home working on the 10-minute film when I realized I needed some shots from where the old entrance archway for the park was located. Around 6 PM, I checked the weather on my phone: the forecast called for rain after 7 PM. I was in luck! There was just enough time to drive to Faulkland Road, walk down the tracks to the arch, film what I needed, and get back before the rain. I asked my two daughters if they wanted to come with me. They both declined. So, off I drove, alone, to the park for a quick picture.
I parked my car on Faulkland Road near the railroad crossing of the Wilmington & Western Railroad and took a leisurely walk down the tracks into the park, as I have done hundreds of times before. It was slightly overcast and there was almost no wind at all.
I finished taking my first shot where the B & O Railroad station had been long ago. It didn't turn out how I hoped and I was thinking of just heading home, but I convinced myself to persist. I figured while I was there, I should just try and get a shot where the archway was, for the heck of it. I was walking around trying to line up my camera with an old picture of the arch so I could compare the two, and was about to film, when I heard a quiet clap of thunder in the distance, my obvious cue to head back the car. I put away my camera. I heard a second clap and started to walk out of the park knowing that surrounded by trees is not where you want to be during a thunderstorm. Suddenly I heard a low hum in the distance followed by a crashing sound. It was far away, but still too close for comfort.
The humming sound grew quickly. It dawned on me that this was a sound I had never heard before. All at once the woods around me started to shake and rumble. The wind started to howl like a freight train was passing right by me. I've often heard that tornadoes sound just like a freight train but I've really never really given that any credence.
One drop, two drops of rain, and then, without warning, a deluge of water started to lash at me with a fierceness I had never felt before. I heard another crash, this time much closer.
It was coming from The Cedars, the neighborhood that boarders the park. I instinctively turned towards it, and, to my amazement and horror, I could make out through the woods the sight of several trees collapsing to the ground about 200 yards from me. It was as if they were being smacked down by some invisible force.
I started running away when a deafening sound hit right in front of me. My first thought was, “what are the odds of this happening right where I'm standing?” As I looked up, I saw the tops of the trees on the hillside before me explode!
I was instantly in shock.
It looked like someone was grabbing the treetops and pulling them off like they were tufts of unwanted grass. The tree tops were twisting around, and suddenly they started to drop straight down. In that split second before, the branches looked like they were floating... Then suddenly, they remembered that gravity existed. It reminded me of how Wile E. Coyote looked as he ran off a cliff and hovered in midair for a few seconds before he looked down, realized where he was, and then fell..
I didn't have time to run as they fell fast and hit inches away from my left. I was almost blown off my feet from the impact. Okay, time to panic! I started to run away from the downed trees and towards Faulkland Road.
Before I could take 3 steps, I felt another burst of wind and heard an even louder crack. Wondering, "what fresh hell is this?", I snapped my head around in time to see a giant tree on the hillside start to fall straight towards me. If you have ever played football, you know it's possible to see the ball thrown and calculate the trajectory and speed of the ball, then run to where it's going to land and make a blind catch over your shoulder. My mind made a similar calculation and told me the tree was going to land directly on me, and I thought, “Well this is it; this is how I'm going to die.”
I ran with all my might towards the train tracks. I was bracing for the impact on my back when the tree came crashing down just to my right. It was just like an action movie! I reached the railroad tracks, not knowing where to run next as I watched another tree fall across the rails about 20 feet to my right, towards Greenbank.
“Okay”, I thought, “I’m not going that way; Faulkland Road it is”.
Changing direction, I reached the steps leading to the grove where I used to run the Wilmington & Western Railroad Train Robbery. I slid down the steps and crouched down in a ditch. I was pelted by rain and wind for another couple of minutes, as I lay there shaking and out of breath. Finally, as quickly as it had begun, the storm let up.
Adrenaline was racing through my veins and I knew I was quite literally not out the woods yet. It's hard to explain the complete feeling of helplessness I was experiencing. My mind was spinning, I had no idea which way to go. I just knew that I needed to get out of the area.
I asked myself, should I go back up the tracks the way I came in or instead go through the path in the woods? The woods meant another chance for a tree to fall on me but the tracks meant I would have to cross a trestle and risk the wind coming back and blowing me off into the creek. Weighing the odds, I figured the tracks would give me less of a chance to escape if things turned bad, so I went through the woods walking out on the old trolley path of the Peoples Railway which is now the maintenance road for the park. I tread carefully, all the way, fearing a tree would fall on me or I could be struck by lightning at any moment.
On my way down the path I passed the area we have always called, “the bear cave.” It's a small cave in the hillside. I thought, this might be a good place to hide, but I looked at it and it was wet and muddy. Instead, I thought it would be better to just keep going towards my car. Climbing over one downed tree on the path, I eventually hiked out of the woods and back to Faulkland Rd.
To my relief, my car was untouched, but there was a tree lying just uphill from my car stopping me from escaping the way I had come in via Faulkland Road. At first, I thought I might be able to drive through the downed tree as the top of the tree was just barely crossing the road and I figured how much damage could it do to my car. I saw the headlights of a truck on the other side and it looked like the driver was thinking the same thing as me, I bet I could make that. So instead, with my heart still racing, I made a U-turn and tried to make my way up the other side of the hill towards Route 41.
Nope! As I drove up the hill, I saw that a couple of trees were solidly blocking that way as well, so I headed back down the hill towards Faulkland Heights not really sure what my exit strategy was going to be.
When I got to the train tracks, I realized I was now trapped in the valley.
While I was sitting at the railroad crossing trying to figure out my next move the storm hit yet again, so I parked at the entrance to Spice Mill Run the neighborhood right near the train crossing. As I sat helpless in my car, an even larger tree fell across Faulkland Road, then another fell just a few feet from me, blocking the entrance to the neighborhood!
There was nowhere I could go, so I waited in my car as the storm whipped around me, wondering if it was going to be a tree, lightning, or a power line that finally finished me off. Again, my luck held up, and after five minutes of chaos, the storm slacked off.
As the deluge let up a little, I decided it wasn't safe to stay where I was. I called my daughters and made sure they were okay. They were fine. Next, I called my friend Don Richard. He volunteers at the Wilmington & Western Railroad as well. Last year a bunch of his friends and I helped build a replica of a railroad station behind his home which borders the Wilmington & Western Railroad and was just a little way up the tracks from where I was sitting. He named it Faulkland Woods Station because his home is on Faulkland Woods Rd. I could see it in the distance up the tracks and figured I could walk there to safety. Unfortunately, he was at work but he told me his roommate, Melissa, was home and he would tell her I was coming.
With a new plan in place I got out of my car and headed across Faulkland Rd toward Don's house. As I crossed Faulkland Road, I started to smell gas: the tree blocking the road had broken a gas line when it fell! It also knocked down a power line! Just what I needed... a new way to die. I ran up the tracks making my way through a fallen tree or two still trying to make my pilgrimage to Don's and safety.
As I got closer to Faulkland Woods Station and Don's house, the storm kicked up once again. Reaching his home, I made my way up from the tracks along his tree covered hill to the safety of his house, leaving the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse behind me. As I climbed the stairs to Don's Back door, I could still hear trees falling near me. I tried to go into his house but to my horror the door was locked. I could feel my panic coming back again. Was it possible I was going to make it this far just to die at his backdoor? I started banging as hard as I could on the door frightening poor Melissa who only knew I was coming over, not what all I'd been through. She got me a towel and for the first time I had a chance to check myself for injuries. For all I knew I had a tree branch sticking out of my back. Gradually I began to realize I didn't have as much as a scratch.
After the storm let up again, I ventured out of Don's house to survey the situation. Walking down Faulkland Woods Road, I saw power lines were hanging low, a power line had fallen across Melissa's car in the driveway and tree branches were thrown everywhere. Walking out of the neighborhood I saw that one tree had been split at about 15 feet off the ground. It was hanging across the road and was wedged into another tree on the other side of the road making its own archway. I had to walk under this "Widow Maker" in order to reach Faulkland Road.
When I got there, I ran into the artist that had made the painting of my father and his dogs last walk, Larry Anderson who happens to live on Faulkland Rd just above the spot where the tree with the gas leak and downed power line lay across the road. Larry was there with some of his neighbors surveying the damage in the area. He told me his house was fine, but then he pointed out to me that the house next to his, down the hill was covered in trees and he was wondering how bad the damage was. Fortunately, no one was home. The next day I found out the damage was extensive.
Over the next few hours fire trucks and power company trucks came and went. They would survey the damage and check for injuries. Finding none they would leave and then a little while later a new truck would arrive and start all over again. I'm a life member of Cranston Heights Fire Company. I was told by a friend on one of the trucks that they had over 30 emergency calls just in our district and they were overwhelmed. Realizing there was nothing I could do to help and nowhere to go with my car being trapped on the other side of the trees I went back to Don's house and waited. Finally, at around 10 PM, my best friend, Tom Gears, came to rescue me and lent me his old car so I could make my way home. As I drove to my house, I started to realize how many roads were blocked and how many people were without power. As I started to walk into my house A CSX freight train started to pass on the tracks that run directly behind my house in Marshallton. As soon as I heard it, I found myself right back in the park with the storm coming down on me. As I laid my head on my pillow a horrible thought crossed my mind. What if my girls had said yes to my invitation to go to the park with me? I wrangled with what could have happened all night long. Needless to say it was a long troubling night.
The next morning, I went back to the park to see if I could reach my car and to survey the aftermath of the storm. A county police officer was kind enough to drive me down to retrieve my car. I was able to drive it up the hill to the parking lot of the park. I almost left but figured I should walk down and see firsthand what damage had been inflicted to the area the day before.
The first major damage I saw was alone Newport Gap Pike near the site of the old Council Oak. The trees looked like something out of the Ardennes Forest during WW2. There was a huge circular grouping of trees with their tops snapped off and thrown around the area. Judging from the distance from me the day before and the amount of destruction, I figure that this was the first loud crash I had heard the night before.
From the sounds and the force of the storm, I was expecting the entire park to be destroyed. But all in all, there wasn't that much damage. A tree down here and there, an occasional branch laying in the woods, but that was it. I started wondering if, in my panic, my mind was exaggerating the damage at the arch and just how close it all was to me. I was about half way through the park when my phone rang, it was Don Richard, my friend whose home was my final destination for safety the day before. He told me he was at the archway and he asked, "Were you at the arch when this happened?” I said, "Yeah.” He gasped and said, "How are you still alive?!?”
I started walking faster toward the arch. As I came to the area where the carousel once stood, I saw all the downed trees near the Cedars; these were the first trees I saw fall. They were snapped off near their bases!
I slowly approached the archway. As I got closer, I started to see the amount of damage laying tangled there. Walking around and getting my bearings, I began to realize just how lucky I was to be alive. One misstep; one stumble; if I had zigged instead of zagged...it would have been a completely different outcome.
A couple of days later, I walked past the bear cave that I thought might have been a safe place to hide during the storm. To my dismay I saw that a couple of trees had fallen down right on top of the cave during the second wave of the storm which hit while I was trapped in my car. Also, a massive tree fell near the cave and slid down the hillside stripping it of all vegetation. If I was in the cave when that happened, it would have either killed me or scared me for life. It was at this time that I truly realized that I had experienced enough close calls for a lifetime in just a 20 minute period. If I had been a cat, I would have used up all of my nine lives.
After surveying all the nearby damage I incurred, my near misses and all my escape routes I came to an amazing realization, if I had just stayed where I was when I first heard the thunder clap instead of running all through the valley, all I would have gotten was wet — not even a small branch fell on the spot where I was initially standing when I heard the first thunder clap. Well now I know. It's easy to look back and think, would have, could have, should have, but in that terrifying moment, I think I chose the correct path out.
It has been a week or more since my thunderous adventure at Brandywine Springs. Thankfully, I have finally gotten to the point that I don't have a flashback every time a freight train passes behind my house.
I'm thankful that Mike Ciosek asked me to write out my experience for the Friends of Brandywine Springs Newsletter because my memory of the incident is already fading. I'm so grateful for the many friends who have helped me with proofreading this story and editing.
Several spiritual friends and family members have suggested that someone was looking over me that day. I have no idea if they were or not. My first thought is, if anyone was looking over me, they might have just said to me, "Don't go down to the park!"
I also think that at any time during my ordeal I could have turned to my side and seen the grim reaper with his scythe looking at me and saying, "So far, so good!"
The stand-up comic in me thinks maybe God turned to a couple of his friends and said, "Anyone wanna watch a fat guy run?" I know that my father's training in firefighting was the thing I leaned on the most. I didn't panic and just kept reacting to whatever was happening next.
I still love the park and its history. I want to share it with as many people as I can. But I have a newfound respect for how fast things can turn bad in this new age of extreme weather.