Above: Detail from Francis William Edmonds’s “The Speculator” (1852). A rural couple listens skeptically to a representative of the Building Association, identified by the paper in his coat pocket. The salesman—whose top hat, pointed shoes, and umbrella mark him as a city slicker—promises the couple a better life as he unrolls a listing of “1000 Valuable Lots on Rail Road Ave.”
It seemed like the next transportation move to make. In 1836 Delaware’s General Assembly chartered the Delaware Railroad for the purpose of building a line “throughout the length” of the state.
The New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad, opened just 4 years before, was booming. And Maryland was building a railroad down the spine of its eastern shore. John M. Clayton, the spearhead of the charter, was worried that Maryland’s eastern shore railroad would siphon transportation business from western Delaware towns.
The timing of the new charter was wrong. The Panic of 1837 touched off a major nationwide depression, which lasted until the mid-1840s. Ambitious railroad plans got shelved.
Kent County native Samuel M. Harrington took up renewal of the Delaware Railroad charter in 1849. He had served as Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court from 1830 to 1839, and was succeeded in that position by John M. Clayton. The two had been in close contact in that period. Harrington was a strong supporter of Clayton’s 1836 efforts.
Charles DuPont, on the board of directors of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, showed immediate interest in Harrington’s activity. In August 1849, he wrote the latter: “My Dear Sir: In regard to railroads, I can only say, that both Kent and Sussex must wake up, or be behind the age. Your people, for want of encouragement, are dormant. Wake them up with a steam whistle! Go ahead, therefore, by all means.”
The new Delaware Railroad charter made no mention of a line running “the length of the state.” Its proposed line would run from Dona Landing, in Kent County, to Seaford, in Sussex County. The goal was for steamships to connect at either end. From Philadelphia they’d head south on Delaware Bay to Dona Landing, then transfer cargo to the railroad. From Dona Landing to Seaford, then offload cargo onto steamships headed out to the Chesapeake Bay via the Nanticoke River. And from the Chesapeake to Norfolk, VA, a major railroad hub.
But what happened to “the length of the state” route?
This route minimized resistance from the enemies of the new railroad. The most powerful of these enemies were the politicos in towns with a strong vested interest in the shipping or shipbuilding industries. Odessa, Frederica, Camden, Milford and Smyrna all relied on one or the other. The rise of railroads threatened to overtake those industries. The Dona Landing to Seaford route circumvented Odessa, Camden, Smyrna and Milford.
This route furthermore cut out the need to share profits with any other railroad line. A route that ran from Seaford northerly “the length of the state” would be expected by the Legislature to connect to any existing New Castle County railroads, which at the time were the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore railroad and the New Castle to Frenchtown line.
The Delaware Railroad grant required the new corporation to raise money by selling subscriptions to stock. Kent and Sussex Counties in 1850 had small populations, hence a limited number of potential buyers. Ah, but why not seek out subscriptions in New Castle County, with its dense, and richer, population? Because stockholders based there might question the proposed route.
The board of directors members Samuel Harrington assembled were all, with one exception, from Kent and Sussex Counties (the state charter required at least one board of director from each county). Harrington’s picks were the ones who bought the first subscriptions. They all owned property either on or adjacent to the Dona Landing to Seaford route. They understood they’d stand to make a lot of money from the new line.
Harrington’s board had 9 members. Their combined investment still wasn’t enough to raise the capital needed. The project stalled for 3 more years, till in 1852 the state put up 5,000 shares (to be paid out of State revenue from the New Castle & Frenchtown Railroad, as it accrued) on the condition that Delaware Railroad’s board sell a total 20,000 shares.
Judge Harrington was revered by the downstate populace. And both Kent and Sussex Countians had noticed the predominance of board members from their part of the state.
So when Harrington managed to gather several hundred attendees at a town hall meeting in Milford on April 23, 1852 they trusted what he had to say. “Taking the rise of land [values] in other states as a criterion,” he told them, “the rise in land only two miles each side of the Delaware Railroad would pay the cost of the road thrice over. The State has already furnished $180,000 and there is only $170,000 wanted, which the citizens of the State are abundantly able to raise.”
All the farmers previously worried about locomotives bowling over their cows, all the property owners previously worried about eminent domain overwhelming them, all reached for their checkbooks. Harrington had his monies in hand within one month. A railroad for southern Delaware was surely about to become reality.