New York City residents drinking the pure waters of upstate’s Croton River may thank Millsboro, DE for the part it played in first delivering those waters to them.
In Sussex County, abundant deposits of bog iron ore once lined the banks of the Nanticoke River and its many branches, which made the area an early industrial center of sorts.
On one of those branches, the Indian River, Colonel William D. Waples established a blast furnace in 1815. He sited the ‘Millsborough Charcoal Furnace’ about 8 miles south of Georgetown, on a spot today known as Cupola Park (the dome roofed blast furnace used in a foundry was called a ‘cupola furnace,’ hence the park name).
Waples, an owner of several businesses, also established a stage coach line across the peninsula and made the growing village of Millsboro an important stop on the line.
Hon. Samuel G. Wright of New Jersey purchased a small interest in the company in 1822, and the organization then added a foundry. By 1828 the foundry and furnace was producing 450 tons of pig iron and 350 tons of casting annually.
In 1830, Wright’s son Colonel Gardiner H. Wright bought into the operation. Within three years he was able to increase the furnace output to 600 tons of pig and castings a year. The Millsborough Charcoal Furnace was fueled each year with, yes, 180,000 bushels of charcoal, but also 7,000 bushels of oyster shells. “80 men were employed by the company,” said The Daily Times [Salisbury, MD], “working 12-hour days at $18 per month.”
“When the industry was at its height,” said Delmarva News, “the wagons stood head to tail waiting to be unloaded with bog iron, from the furnace out past Five Forks toward Hickory Hill and from where the Millsboro post office now stands, to Betts Pond.” In the early 1830s the Millsborough Charcoal Furnace was shipping its products to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Norfolk. Gardiner Wright operated the Millsborough Charcoal Furnace until 1836, when it ‘went out of blast’ (was shut down).
Meantime, the company’s foundry portion in 1837 fashioned pipes for NY’s Croton Water Works. It also produced the railings formerly surrounding Independence Square in Philadelphia, as well as the castings for that city’s Eastern Penitentiary.
By 1859 the Millsborough Charcoal Furnace, now fully owned by the younger Wright, was the only Delaware furnace/foundry still technically operating. The group continued on till 1879. Better ores were being discovered in America, and this phase of Delaware’s industrial history passed.