Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Union Park Gardens

Evening Journal
October 7, 1892
In the late 1800s the western city limits of Wilmington were at Union Street. Located on the large undeveloped space west of Union Street at Front Street (now Lancaster Ave), there was a park known as the Front & Union Park or sometimes known as the Union Street Park. This park held picnic grounds, athletic fields, and various attractions. The athletic grounds were used for track & field games and even bicycle racing but baseball was the mainstay. In 1882 the Wilmington Quicksteps leased the grounds and built stands for 700 people. The lease did not allow liquor, gambling, or games on Sunday. The Quicksteps were a professional team that played in the Union League. Musical acts, circuses, and traveling shows would also set up there as well. The park was situated at the end of the Front Street trolley line and easily accessible to most Wilmingtonians. 

Evening Journal
On April 6, 1917 America entered the Great War and soon after, found its manufacturing capabilities woefully unprepared. To fight a war on another continent America was going to need to transport a lot of men and material across the Atlantic Ocean. German U-Boats were sinking a lot of ships, 5,000 of them over the course of the war. To meet the needs of wartime shipbuilding production the Emergency Fleet Corporation was created to build and operate merchant ships to move war materials.

Wilmington had always been a shipbuilding city and getting its shipyards turning out merchant ships was a top priority. The Emergency Fleet Corporation took over shipbuilders Harlan & Hollingsworth and Pusey & Jones. Workers were pouring into the city as the shipyards swung into full gear. Wilmington’s shipbuilding industry was soon faced with a serious problem. There was no place to house the newly-arrived shipyard workers. 

Evening Journal 5-25-1918
The Liberty Land Company was formed to undertake a huge building project to house the shipyard workers. The 58-acre Front & Union Park on the west side of the city was an ideal location for a large housing project. The property was purchased and the project got underway, Meanwhile shipyard workers were overwhelming Wilmington and the housing situation was critical. 

Site plan of Union Park Gardens 
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

Town planner and landscape architect John Nolen, a native of Philadelphia was selected to design the neighborhood in the style of the English Garden movement. The Philadelphia architecture and engineering firm Ballinger and Perrot worked with Nolen designing the houses. The Lynch Construction company of New York was selected as the general contractor. The new neighborhood was named Union Park Gardens honoring the old picnic grounds and athletic fields. 

June 25, 1918
Morning News
Ground was broken on June 24, 1918 and a literal army of workers started right away. The initial crew was 200 men but it was increased to 1,000 as soon as dormitories and mess halls were built.  

Temporary dormitories for the workers can be seen going up in this photo dated 8-23-1918. 
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

In short order the workforce was increased to 2,400 
and peaked at 3,755. This could have been the largest and quickest residential construction project ever undertaken in Delaware, with nearly all the work done by hand. Pick and shovel laborers were paid 40 cents per hour and skilled tradesmen 75 cents. 

The amount of manpower is evident in this photo dated 8-23-1918.
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

Because of its size, this project caused a brick shortage in the Wilmington area. The Lynch Construction Company placed an order for twelve million bricks. It took the city’s two brick manufacturers 40 days working around the clock to meet the order.

Machines were nearly non-existent as seen in this view of the 200 block of Union Street dated 11-1-1918.
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

Even though motorized trucks were coming into use, the vast majority of materials were delivered using horse and wagon. In addition to the 3,755 men, hundreds of horses were used as well. With that much manpower the houses began to rise quickly on the former picnic grounds. 

201 S. Union Street is shown here under construction in this photo dated 11-1-1918.
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

Every single brick, piece of lumber, and shingle was offloaded from wagons by hand to staging areas and then carried into place when needed. 

204 S. Bancroft Parkway is is shown here under construction in this photo dated 11-1-1918.
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

By October of 1918, just 4 months after ground was broken, the first of the houses were ready for occupancy. 

201-207 S. Bancroft Parkway & 2100-2106 Biddle Street are shown here nearly finished in this photo dated 11-1-1918.
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

The War to End all Wars ended on 11-11-1918, and suddenly building huge numbers of ships was no longer a priority. Production and manpower was cut at the shipyards and subsequently the Lynch Construction Company slowed down construction on Union Park Gardens. 

The corner of Lancaster Ave. and Bancroft Parkway is seen here on 11-1-1918. 
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

In July of 1919 about 300 of the 506 houses were occupied and work was progressing slowly. The houses were owned by the United State Shipping Board and rented to the shipyard workers.

The same location is seen a month later.  
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

The families wanted to own the homes rather than rent, but they were not for sale. The government poured $5 million dollars into the massive effort to build the neighborhood which amounts to about $10,000 per house. At that time, the going rate for houses was about one third of that amount. 

The residents of Union Park Garden wanted to purchase the houses directly, however the government wanted to sell the entire lot to an investor.  On November 20, 1920 the United State Shipping Board listed the entire neighborhood for sale by means of a sealed bid. 

Biddle Street is seen here on 11-1-1918. 
Courtesy Cornell University Library

There was only one bid for the entire neighborhood and a flurry of bids for individual properties by the tenants. The Industrial Trust Company of Wilmington was the lone bidder for the entire property with a bid of $1.15 million. All bids were rejected as too low and a request went out for bids again with a $2 million minimum. In the meantime with reduced work at the shipyard workers were demanding a reduction in rent. Union Park Gardens had become a financial albatross. 

On April 21, 1921 the Morning News announced that Union Park Gardens was sold to a Philadelphia syndicate for $1.6 million, but soon after, the deal fell through. On February 27, 1922 over 5,000 people attended an auction that sold 286 of the properties at prices ranging from $2,000 to $4,500. The remaining properties were sold the next day. The two-day auction brought in $1.57 million. 

The saga doesn't end there. By July, the purchasers still had not gotten deeds to their properties. Senator T. Coleman DuPont was called upon to lean on the United State Shipping Board which got things moving. By the end of July, with over 500 deeds coming into his office, Darlington Flinn, the county Recorder of Deeds, had to appoint 5 extra clerks to process the paperwork. 

The Evening Journal - February 18, 1922

By the early part of August the final deeds were recorded, and the government was finally rid of its housing business in Wilmington. The majority of the ships built by the Emergency Fleet Corporation never made it into wartime service and were converted into cargo ships. This caused a huge glut of new ships, which drove down prices that resulted in another huge financial loss for government. 

The neighborhood known as The Flats was also built at the same time. That will have to be the subject for another post. Darlington Flinn, the Recorder of Deeds, is also on the list for a future post. 

If you have a story or memory of Union Park Gardens please post it below in the comments. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Charles "Kid" Finney, Delaware's First African-American Professional Athlete

Most people in Delaware have never heard of Charles Henry “Kid” Finney, but during the early twentieth century he was well known to sports fans in both the First State and the region. Finney was born in Dover around 1887, his exact birthdate remains a mystery because during that time accurate records were not kept, and throughout his life, Finney himself reported his age inconsistently. 

He grew up in what he
described as a tough part of Dover, known as Kirben’s Row. In 1953 Finney told the Journal Every-Evening that it was on Kirben’s Row that young boys in the neighborhood used to put on pillow-like gloves and box. Finney soon “licked all of the boys in his gang” and took up boxing as his livelihood. 

Eventually, the skinny kid from Kirben’s Row proved himself to be one of Delaware’s great boxers. The 1900 US Census shows Finney was living in the Marshallton area where he would soon make his mark.

In 1903 Finney was filmed by the Edison Company for the short comedy, "A Scrap in Black and White." The film was one nine made at Brandywine Springs in 1903. All nine survive today. They are the oldest surviving films made in Delaware.

At this time, prizefighting was illegal in Delaware however boxing itself was not illegal. Boxers were allowed to be paid to fight, they were paid a flat fee and not permitted to win a prize. In the early 1900s it was nearly impossible for African Americans to participate in professional sports. Countless great athletes were never able to cross the “color line.” Even the most impressive demonstrations of athleticism were largely ignored by the newspapers. Often when a newspaper paper ran a story, it would diminish the accomplishment and reduce the dignity of these athletes by referring to them with racial slurs.

African Americans in boxing were typically limited to boxing in “battle royal” fights that were offered as an opening act at boxing events or simply staged as a spectacle. A promoter would find six to ten African Americans and have them all fight at once, slugging away at each other until one man was left standing.

In 1936 Finney told the Journal Every-Evening that it was in one of these battle royals near Brandywine Springs where he started his career as a professional 
Morning News 4-30-1910
pugilist in 1905. Finney won the battle royal and was awarded the sum of one dollar. It is easy to close your eyes and imagine a group of skinny, ragged, young African-American men slugging away at each other whilst a large group of men surround them yelling and cheering. Sometimes men would toss coins in during the match and the boxers would simply stop when the coins stopped. Side bets were often a big part of the battle royal. The next week the local boxing club had Finney return for a bout against local boxer Ralph Raymond.

By 1908 Wilmington newspapers were calling Finney the bantamweight champion of Delaware and a
From the Morning News 
favorite at Brandywine Springs. Finney became well known for his speed, his ability to be battered, and most importantly for sending his opponents to pummel city. Local boxers would write letters to the sports editor of the Wilmington newspapers asking to challenge Finney. He was soon boxing regularly at Brandywine Springs and at various venues around Wilmington and eventually Chester, Philadelphia, and beyond. 

Entry in the 1910 US Census

The 1910 Census list Finney’s profession as pugilist while living at No. 4 High Street in Wilmington with his wife Rosa. Webster's dictionary give the following definition for Pugilist: : FIGHTER 
especially : a professional boxer

After Finney became the bantamweight champion of Delaware, he found no shortage of opponents. Potential opponents even published challenges to Finney in the Wilmington newspapers. Finney would often take on men who outweighed him by 20 pounds and at least once fought two men in one evening. The April 1, 1910 edition of the Evening
Evening Journal
Journal reported that in Philadelphia, Finney defeated Jake Spewak in three rounds. The fans clamored for more and Young Dugan stepped up and challenged him to go three more rounds. Finney took the challenge and bested him too. Official records were not kept, so we do not know the exact dates of all of his fights, nor do we know the length of his reign as champion, but we do know he was active in boxing on and off until 1927 and then trained other boxers in the 1940s. We also know various newspaper reports credit Finney with over 400 wins against only a handful of losses, and reportedly, he was never knocked out.

The Country Roller Rink was located next to Brandywine Springs Park and also served as a venue for fist men to pound the flesh. The bouts at Country Roller Rink quickly gained popularity and boxing flourished at Brandywine Springs, albeit, outside of the park. On May 2, 1910 the Evening Journal reported a boxing card featuring Finney was enough of a draw that the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad operated a special train to the rink from Philadelphia and Chester and the Peoples Railway had 30 trolley cars in use to carry eager boxing fans from Wilmington.

After his boxing career ended, Finney, with little formal education and no other marketable skills, fell on hard times. For a while he lived on Klund Street, one of the poorest ramshackle streets in Wilmington, and for a number of years worked as a junk collector and then as a janitor. At one point in the early 1930s he became ill and spent some time in the State Welfare Home where he was nursed back to health. On May 10, 1963, Finney died in a tiny row house at 910 Walnut Street in Wilmington, his achievements from a half century before had largely been forgotten.

Countless African-American athletes from Finney’s era never got the chance to make it as far as Finney, their names and faces are long lost. Finney crossed the color line and made a living as a pugilist. Finney was a pioneer, perhaps, the first African-American athlete in Delaware to earn a living in sports. His story has been Almost Forgotten.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Great Kiamensi Bridge Swap

Postcard view of the Kiamensi Woolen Mill
In the early 20th century Kiamensi was a small industrial hamlet built around a woolen mill in Mill Creek Hundred. In July of 1907 the folks in the rural village of Kiamensi witnessed the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad carry out one of the greatest feats of engineering ever undertaken in Delaware. A feat that arguably has never been matched.

1891 view of the B&O RR bridge over the Red Clay Creek

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad route between New York and Washington, The Royal Blue Route, was built in the 1880s. By the early 1900s the bridge over the Red Clay Creek at Kiamensi, like all of the original bridges, was becoming obsolete due to the increasing size and weight of the trains. A major bridge building campaign was launched that saw the replacement of all bridges on the route. The iconic arch bridge over the Brandywine at Augustine was built during this time.

Postcard view the B&O RR bridge over the Brandywine

Replacing bridges on an operating railroad without interrupting the flow of commerce has always presented major engineering challenges. The bridge over the Brandywine required building a new bridge and rerouting the railroad over a new alignment to connect to the new bridge once it was completed.

As seen from  Marshallton the
Kiamensi bridge is visible in the distance.
For the bridge at Kiamensi the railroad decided on a grand plan of action never before or since attempted on such a scale in Delaware. The existing structure was one of the largest bridges in Delaware at the time. It towered 50 feet over the surface of the Red Clay Creek, was 160 feet long, and weighed 800 tons. The new bridge weighing 1,200 tons was to be built next to the existing bridge on temporary foundations.

The two bridges were to be bolted together, the tracks severed, and slid together as one unit putting the new bridge in the same place as the old one with minimal disruption to the busy railroad. This required not only a temporary foundation for the new bridge but a second temporary foundation for the old bridge to rest on once the move was complete. Work on the new bridge was started by the Youngstown Construction Company in September of 1906. The temporary foundations, called falsework, were built first on the upstream side of the bridge and then construction started. The bridge was built in pieces, delivered in kit form, and assembled by a
Steam donkey with derrick.
team of 350 men using wooden derricks and ropes with the muscle provided by a steam donkey. Word got out that Sunday, July 14, 1907 would be the big day. The new bridge was ready on the upstream side and the falsework on the downstream side was ready to receive the old bridge. The two bridges were sitting upon railroad tracks built on the falsework and rollers were in place to guide the bridges down the rails for their short journey.
About 600 men, women, and children gathered near the bridge to see the performance. At 11:45AM what was to be the very last train over the old bridge rolled through Kiamensi. The track workers on both sides of the Red Clay Creek quickly severed the rails.

A close-up view of a donkey engine. 

The boiler and donkey engine started to do their work but nothing happened. The boiler operator stoked the fire with extra wood and tossed in some crude petroleum but the engine just could not get the bridges to move. In a few minutes they quietly announced the shifting of the bridges was postponed. The track workers quickly
reconnected the track and soon trains were running over the old bridge once again. 

On Wednesday, July 17, 1907 the construction crew had made the required adjustments, made some repairs to the boiler of the donkey engine, and were ready to try again. 

Donkey engines with derricks being used in the construction 
of the elevated railroad through Wilmington in 1905.

At 11:15AM with a somewhat smaller group of spectators, and a second donkey engine as a backup, the track workers disconnected the rails for the second time. The signal was given and the donkey engine started tugging on the heavy ropes attached to the two bridges. Inch by inch, two bridges slowly started moving. 

After about two minutes the donkey engine stopped due to low steam. Worry had to be setting in because the move was not complete. About a minute passed
and the engine started working again. The new bridge was in place moments later. The track workers quickly reconnected the rails. The whole operation was completed in five minutes and train traffic was uninterrupted. The old bridge was dismantled, the falseworks removed, and all that remained was new bridge over the Red Clay Creek. 

Postcard view of the 1907 B&O RR
bridge at Kiamensi

The replacement of the Kiamensi Bridge is still one of the most amazing feats of engineering ever accomplished in Delaware. The engineers who designed the bridge did their job well. Over a century later, the 1907 bridge is still serving the needs of CSX, the current operator of the old B&O Railroad. The next time you’re driving along Kiamensi Road, look upstream as you cross the Red Clay Creek and you'll get a quick glimpse of the Kiamensi railroad bridge.

The 1907 bridge is still in use today.
Photo by Don Richard.

About Price's Corner

Many of us travel past or visit Price's Corner on a regular basis. With the big changes happening at the shopping center we thought it would be a good time to visit the origin of its place name. The Prices Corner Shopping Center, built in 1962, has been a well-known location in New Castle County for decades. 

Over the years there have been various stories about the origin of the name. One was that Price’s Corner refers to the good prices at the shopping center. Another states Price’s Corner is named after a convict who was executed at old Workhouse at Greenbank. There is also one that claims that it was Mr. Price who last farmed the property when it was sold to developers to build the shopping center. 

Prices Corner, like many of the other corners in Delaware, gained its name because of who lived there.

The Triangle
1881 New Castle County Map
Library of Congress
In this case it was David M. Price and his wife Jane Tweed Price. They were married in 1834 and moved into a 18’ x 24’ cabin located on a 2-acre triangle of land bordered by Greenbank, Center, and Centerville Roads. Price opened a blacksmith shop and by 1842 moved into a larger 11-room house constructed on the north side of the property. David and Jane raised seven children on the little triangle of land. The little cabin on Price’s property was later considered to be significant and one of the oldest of its type in Delaware. 

Delaware Public Archives Photo
Many believed the cabin dated to early Swedish settlers from the 1600s but studies by the University of Delaware dated the cabin to about 1750. Legend said the cabin was known as the “Honeymoon House,” used by children of the Justice Family in the late 1700s and early 1800s. It was the first stop for the children of the wealthy Justice family when they married and moved out of the family mansion. The cabin was acquired by the state as a historic relic and relocated to Fort Christina Park. It was damaged by fire in the 1990s and later demolished.

It’s important to note that Kirkwood Highway, or the New Road, as it was known then, had not yet been
1849 New Castle County Map
Library of Congress
built. The actual intersection of Price’s blacksmith shop was located where Centerville and Center Roads crossed. When Kirkwood highway was built it cut directly through the north side of the triangle reducing its size considerably. Today this is the location of the intersection of Old Capitol Trail and Centerville Road adjacent to the DART Park-n-Ride lot at Prices Corner.

The Truck Farm
Delaware Republican on January 6, 1873
The first reference to Price’s Corner as a place name is found in a small classified ad placed in the Delaware Republican on January 6, 1873 offering a small “truck farm” for rent near the Brandywine Springs. The term “truck farm” might have caught your attention, especially since in 1873 the motorized truck as we know had not yet been developed.

Compared to its more rural counterparts, a truck farm was a smaller specialty farm located closer to a large
Farmers wagons lined up for
Market in Wilmington.
city. Truck farmers grew high value fruits and vegetables and took them directly to market in the city with horse-drawn wagons. Where was the market located? On the street which became Market Street.

The Fenimore Era
After David Price died on January 21, 1892 his property was managed by John P. McKee, who was married to Price's oldest child Emily. Emily died in October 1893 and John died the following November. The property passed to another of David and Jane Price’s daughters, Mary T. Price, and was sold to Mrs. Ellen Fenimore after Mary’s death in 1923.

The Coroner's office is to the far left.
Ellen Fenimore was the widow of William H.Fenimore, two of their seven sons were well-known because they both held public office. Harvey C. Fenimore was new Castle County Sheriff and a private auctioneer and his brother Dr. William N. Fenimore was a well-known doctor, country coroner, and official doctor for Cranston Heights Fire Company. This explains how the coroner’s office ended up next door to the fire company.
The sign from Dr. Fenimore's Office.
Collection of Raymond Harrington

DelDOT Photo
In 1936 Mrs. Fenimore died and her estate was held in trust until 1944 when it was sold at auction by her son Harvey. The buyer Thomas C. Hawke turned out to be associated with the Fenimore family. Harvey C. Fenimore continued his auction business on the property for many years. In 1954 the State of Delaware tried to condemn the property for future expansion of the intersection of Kirkwood Highway, Center Road, and Centerville Road. Fennimore refused to sell, took the state to court, and won. The grounds for his win was there was no present need to take the land. Since the state was attempting to condemn the property and there was no immediate plan for road improvements the courts upheld the rights of private property owners. 
DelDOT Photo
The continued use of the placename Price's Corner was etched in stone in 1962 with the coming of the Price's Corner Shopping Center. That same year the Shell Oil Company made Fenimore an offer he couldn’t refuse. The triangle of land which included the historic log cabin that David and Jane Price started out in over a century before soon become a gas station.

Eventually the triangle of land once owned by Price disappeared when Route 141 was built and Centerville Road was lowered to pass under Kirkwood Highway. 

Many locals might recall Fenimore's Auction, Acme when it was on Kirkwood Highway, Penn Fruit, Sears, or the lunch counter at Woolworths. 

You probably have your own Price's Corner memory. We would love to hear them. Please share them in the comments section below. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

A Walk in the Park

Just a few days into the State of Emergency many Delawareans find themselves feeling trapped at home. Social distancing does not have to mean home confinement. With simple, common-sense precautions and a couple elbow bumps in place of hand shakes, it’s still safe to spend some time outside. In case you didn’t know, New Castle County parks are open and a great place to spend some time outside to get in a little exercise while maintaining good social distance. 

The Almost Forgotten History duo of Thomas Gears and Raymond Harrington took full advantage of this today and decided to do a little history sleuthing in Brandywine Springs Park, one of the crown jewels of the New Castle County park system.

A Peoples Railway trolley on the boardwalk at
Brandywine Springs in the parks heyday.
While we were walking through the park, taking pictures, and figuring out a little almost forgotten history, there were two things we noticed.

The first thing was just how amazing and open the park looks right now. The park has never looked better thanks to the hard work done by the park maintenance crew and the Friends of Brandywine Springs (FOBS) volunteers. The underbrush above the county sewer lines has been cleared and Lake Washington has been reclaimed. 

Lake Washington in Brandywine Springs Park

While we were there we ran into Mark Lawlor, one of the founders of FOBS, active park volunteer, and the author of two very popular books about Brandywine Springs. Lawlor was busy with his latest
The center board is made of
wood from the historic Council Oak.
project, installing two Adirondack chairs next to the Red Clay Creek.  He designed and built them from scratch with materials he purchased himself. The center board on the back of each chair is made with wood from the famous Council Oak. With the help of the New Castle County parks maintenance crew, Lawlor has built a new trail that takes you along the Red Clay Creek, past the ruins of the Kiamensi Spring Water Company, and back along the tail of Hyde Run.

Author and park volunteer Mark Lawlor shows off the
Adirondack chairs he designed, built, and installed.
After we parted ways with Lawlor, we noticed a second thing. The park was bustling with young families brought out by the fine weather. The park is big enough for hundreds of people to wander the trails and still maintain social distance. 

One of the many historic markers found throughout the park.
The trails are lined with historical markers that provide glimpses of the many attractions from when it was a famous amusement park. The markers have been installed by the Friends of Brandywine Springs, a group dedicated to creating a historical nature walk and sharing the history of the former amusement park that once attracted up to 30,000 visitors a day. One by one, we saw parents reading the information to their children and heard the kids ask with amazement the same questions we asked when we were younger. How did it all fit in here? Where did it go? Why is it gone and wouldn’t it be great if it was still here?

The markers make for an amazing self guided tour.

Ruins of the Kiamensi Spring Water Company can
be seen from the new trail along the Red Clay Creek.
So if you are feeling restless, head over to Brandywine Springs for some exercise and fresh air. You can walk on what was once the roadbed of the Peoples Railway trolley line, that on busy days, saw trolleys from Wilmington delivering park goers to the once-famous park every 3 minutes. You can walk along the new trail next to the Red Clay Creek where bald eagles have been spotted. If you just want to relax, you can sit on a hillside where legend says George Washington addressed his troops during the Revolutionary War at the base of the Council Oak. 

The Council Oak standing tall above Lake Washington. 
Exercise is good for the body and learning is good for the mind. If you are finding yourself tired of being confined, get out and take a "Walk in the Park."

Information about the Friends of Brandywine Springs can be found at:

Mark Lawlor's books about Brandywine Springs can be purchased at: 

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