America’s first state celebrates its “founding river” and more.
Photograph by Michael Melford
On a dreary stretch of Interstate 95, shadowed by the corporate office towers of Wilmington, Delaware, an overpass spans a narrow valley. Passing motorists, zooming through on their way toward Baltimore or Philadelphia, might cross a hundred times and barely notice the gorge’s existence: hardly more than a wrinkle in the landscape, a glimpse of treetops vanishing in the rearview mirror. They would hardly guess at the little world enfolded within it, much less that it conceals what is arguably one of America’s great waterways.
The Brandywine River is not, to be sure, the Mississippi, the Colorado, or the Hudson. It has inspired no epic novels, gouged no mighty canyons, carried on its bosom no famous ships. Indeed, in most places the Brandywine is navigable only by canoe or kayak, and you can easily skip a stone from one shore to the other. Its main stem is a mere 20 miles long, and for several centuries geographers have disagreed over whether it is a river at all or merely a creek. Yet no one could dispute that throughout those centuries, this bantam-size stream has consistently punched far above its weight. The Brandywine has powered technological revolutions, fueled gold rushes and wars, dazzled famous artists. A battle for the young nation’s survival was fought on its muddy banks.
Today the Brandywine is drawing new attention thanks to a tract of land alongside it that may become the core of a new national monument: the 400th unit of the National Park System and the first within the state of Delaware. If proponents prevail, the rest of the country will finally notice the Brandywine—and the outsize course that it has cut through American history.
Du Pont descendants still live in the 1923 Granogue mansion, one of many grand
estates that have preserved a lush natural corridor along the Brandywine River
in Delaware. Portions of the corridor form the backbone of a proposed
The Brandywine River powered American industry in the 19th century. Walker’s
textile mill joins many others that dot the riverbanks. Upstream, the DuPont
Company made gunpowder; other mills produced everything from paper to
Bluebells blooming along the Brandywine River mark springtime in Delaware.
A Pennsylvania field splashed with grape hyacinths was the site of heavy combat in 1777 during the Battle of Brandywine. British troops outflanked Washington’s army, clearing a path for the redcoats to march on Philadelphia and take the city.
A reenactor seeks shade during the Battle of Brandywine
Inside the John Dickinson Plantation in Dover, Delaware, portraits of the patriot’s parents oversee side-by-side rooms. Dickinson championed colonists’ rights in the run-up to the Revolutionary War and later signed the Constitution.
As dawn breaks, a lone sycamore tree emerges from the mist at Woodlawn, the 1,100-acre heart of Delaware’s proposed national monument. Industrialist William Bancroft bought this land for a park, predicting in 1909, “It may take a hundred years to work out.”
Along a road through Woodlawn, oaks and maples shimmer with the season. Woodlawn is one of the last large undeveloped sites in an area increasingly hemmed in by the encroaching outskirts of Wilmington and Philadelphia.
Painter Andrew Wyeth kept a secret studio a few miles from this Woodlawn farmhouse, creating works of art inspired by the surrounding landscape until his death in 2009. Some of his paintings evoke similar wintry scenes.
Credits: National Geographic