Cape Henlopen State Park. Photo Ron McArthur
Delaware State Parks holds stewardship over more than 13,000 acres of land, marking it as one of the state’s largest landholders and the premier guardian of publicly owned land. The department also has the unique distinction of managing the highest number of historic structures inside Delaware’s borders. This crucial role solidified within the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control starting in the 1960s.
Delaware governor McMullen signed the State Park Commission into law in 1937 to establish parks, playgrounds, and preserves. But it was the 1960s that marked a milestone in Delaware’s park history. Eight of the seventeen state parks sprung to life during this decade, owing to a confluence of many contributing factors.
Federal Funding as a Catalyst for Expansion
The first factor contributing to the growth of Delaware’s state parks was the influx of federal funds, particularly from the Land and Water Conservation Fund State Assistance Program.
This 1965 legislation offered matching grants to states encouraging the acquisition and development of public outdoor recreation sites and facilities. These funds could also be funneled through states to assist local governments for the same purposes.
Peter Geldof Jr, superintendent of Delaware State Parks at the time, had followed the path of the program from the time Congress introduced the bill in late 1962. He outlined a plan to the Delaware Assembly the following year to invest the expected funding should the federal bill be passed. Thanks to Geldof’s advance planning and the bill’s passage, Delaware established the new Cape Henlopen State Park in 1964, the state’s largest, and one of the earliest, beneficiaries of such funding.
A second component presented itself: members of wealthy families, upon inheriting ancestral mansions, sometimes found themselves uninterested in maintaining these large estates. The tax donation allowances presented an attractive solution: transfer ownership to the state.
Delaware consequently gained four magnificent state parks, each with its unique historical flavor: Bellevue State Park, a legacy of William du Pont Jr.; Auburn Valley State Park, former property of the Marshall dynasty; Alapocas Run State Park, which once housed the Joseph Bancroft Mills; and Brandywine Creek State Park, previously a du Pont family parcel.
Lastly, the 1960s surge in state park expansions was fueled by the federal government’s disposition towards shedding properties no longer deemed necessary. This strategy resulted in the birth of five more state parks—
Cape Henlopen State Park, once a military base known as Fort Miles during World War II; Fort Delaware State Park, home to the Union fortress of Civil War fame; Fort DuPont State Park, named after the military facility it housed in the 19th and 20th centuries; Fenwick Island State Park, a barrier island utilized for coastal defense during World War II; and Delaware Seashore Park, once the site of the Indian River Inlet Station.
Some properties, like Lums Pond and Killens Pond, transitioned into state parks due to their diminished commercial value. Lums Pond, originally built in the early 19th century as an impoundment for the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, found a new life as a state park in 1963. Similarly, the state acquired Killens Pond State Park, a former millpond that had become a tax burden for its owners, in 1965.
Birth of a Park through Public Advocacy
Some lands were caught in the crossfire between public and private interests. White Clay Creek State Park was born out of such a conflict. After World War II, potential water shortages in northern Delaware led to a proposed dam on White Clay Creek to create a reservoir, which caused the Pennsylvania Railroad and then DuPont to buy land in the area.
However, in the early 1960s, this proposal sparked staunch opposition from local citizens and groups like the United Automobile Workers and the Sierra Club. The White Clay Watershed Association coalesced in 1965 against building the dam.
A stalemate between environmentalists and business interests subsequently unfolded. DuPont abandoned its plans for the dam, yielding to environmental apprehensions and public opposition. The state acquired the land in 1968 and officially inaugurated White Clay Creek State Park before the end of the year.
Delaware’s expansion of state parks in the 1960s was part of a larger national trend. The post-WWII period saw rapid urban growth and industrialization, leading to increased recognition of the need to preserve natural spaces.
This era also marked the advent of the modern environmental movement, inspired by Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 work, “Silent Spring.”
Americans seeking to reconnect with nature had more disposable income and leisure time than prior generations. And so, a surge in hiking, fishing, boating, and camping led to expanded park creation. All told, these trends profoundly shaped Delaware’s state park system, creating a future for all to enjoy.