Town of history: Founders, patriots and stars have all made their way to New Castle
New Castle, Delaware — this historic town along the Delaware River was once a hub of colonial activity as blacksmiths, carpenters and coopers went about the business of daily life.
The colonists are long gone, but the 500 remaining historic structures are a reminder of a time when gentlemen squires dressed in breeches and tricorn hats lived here.
A few buildings serve as house museums; others are restaurants, galleries and shops, but private citizens live in the majority of the brick sidewalk-hugging homes.
Mike Connolly, executive director of the New Castle Historical Society, said the museums and visitors center are closed because of COVID-19, but visitors can walk around town and learn its history. The historic district lends itself to meandering, and Connolly said he is always discovering something new — despite living here for 27 years.
Visitors can eat a picnic lunch on the town green or explore the alleyways, gardens and church cemeteries — where signers of the Declaration of Independence, former governors and Revolutionary War soldiers are buried.
New Castle was Delaware’s first capital, but its history begins when the Dutch settled here for the lucrative fur trade in 1651. Then the Swedes pushed them out in 1654. The Dutch regained control in 1655, and finally the English claimed the land for good in 1664.
William Penn took his first step on American soil in New Castle in 1682 and made it part of Pennsylvania by dividing the colony’s southern part into New Castle, Kent and Sussex counties.
The New Castle Court House Museum, at the center of town, was first built in 1689. It burned down and was rebuilt in 1732, and it’s where local lawmakers met on June 15, 1776, and declared independence from Pennsylvania and England and established Delaware as a state. The date, known as Separation Day, is a big celebration in town.
It also was at this courthouse where abolitionist Thomas Garrett — a friend of Harriet Tubman — was tried and convicted for helping slaves escape to freedom with the Underground Railroad. The trial left him bankrupt but not bitter, because he gave an impassioned speech saying he would do it all again.
The court moved to Wilmington in 1881 and the building was used as a police station, mayor’s office, and restaurant and tearoom, where child star Shirley Temple had lunch with her mother while waiting for the ferry to New Jersey.
New Castle’s cobblestone, tree-lined streets feature architectural styles from Georgian to Victorian to the hexagonal-shaped Old Library Museum. An exhibit about two New Castle women who had opposing views of the suffrage movement is planned at the museum this summer, Connolly said.
Homes of note include the one-room colonial-style Dutch House, built circa 1690, where a tradesman and his family lived; the grand Georgian-style Amstel House, built in 1738, where George Washington visited for a wedding in 1784; and the Read house, built in 1804, a Federal-style mansion overlooking the Delaware River.
For more information, visit newcastlehistory.org or newcastlecity.delaware.gov.