Wilmington history spans back to the birth of America

Wilmington History bridge

The Delaware Memorial Bridge holds an important place in Wilmington history, leading the way for a second bridge in 1968. (The Wilmington, Del., News Journal)

DealChicken has found a lion’s share of Wilmington history while hunting and pecking across Delaware for the best deals. From the Kalmar Nyckel to the Delaware Memorial Bridge, he’s found facts that even the most loyal Wilmington history buffs may not know.

Ahoy, history buffs! Just like the Mayflower brought settlers to Plymouth Rock, the Kalmar Nyckel was the ship that brought the first settlers to the Delaware Valley in 1638. While the original ship is long gone, Wilmington locals and visitors can step back in time with a tour of the recreated Kalmar Nyckel. This impressive ship is complete with a 10-story mainmast, billowing sails and four cannons.

Long before Delaware became the first U.S. state, the area was developed by Swedish settlers under the name New Sweden. The first Swedish settlers arrived by boat in 1638 around the same area that is now the city of Wilmington. Anyone who wants to get a glimpse of Wilmington’s distant past can check out two historic buildings which were built in the 1690s and are still standing: Old Swedes Church and the Hendrickson House. Now that’s craftsmanship that was built to last!

In 1951 crossing the Delaware River became a whole lot easier with the opening of the Delaware Memorial Bridge. This bridge was so popular that by 1955 it had almost eight million vehicles a year crossing it. The success led to a second, nearly identical bridge being opened alongside the first in 1968. These twin bridges now carry a combined eight lanes of traffic (one from Delaware to New Jersey, and the other in the opposite direction) amounting to 80,000 vehicles each day!

Wilmington residents have good reasons to feel like they live at the center of everything. To start, the city lies halfway between New York City and Washington D.C. (100 miles from each). But Wilmington is also within 30 minutes of Philadelphia and 60 minutes of Pennsylvania’s scenic Amish Country. It’s only 90 minutes to Baltimore, Maryland, or to Atlantic City in New Jersey. And, if that’s not enough, Delaware’s sandy beaches are just a quick two hours away.

The Delaware History Museum has its own interesting history. The building that houses this regional museum was once a Wilmington Woolworth store with cool art-deco architecture. It may now be a museum instead of a five-and-dime, but locals who stop in to visit can still pick up interesting trinkets (like regional crafts, nostalgic toys and fun Delaware souvenirs) in the museum gift shop.

We might be all choked up without one Wilmington-born physician. Dr. Henry J. Heimlich, creator of the now famous Heimlich Maneuver, was born in Wilmington in 1920. He made many great contributions to medicine throughout his career, but the Heimlich Maneuver is one that shows people with no medical training how to save lives. In fact, it’s estimated that over 50,000 lives have been saved by this technique since it was first introduced in 1974!

Winterthur is the place to go for Americana. Formerly the home of Henry Francis du Pont, this fabulous estate is now one of the country’s leading museums of early American culture. It features a collection of nearly 90,000 objects, as well as a 60-acre naturalistic garden. Today, Winterthur sits on 982 acres, but that’s a fraction of its original size. Back when it was a working estate, Winterthur spanned a full 2,500 acres. (How’s that for a big yard?)

Today locals know Little Italy as a great place to explore specialty shops, find friendly businesses and get an authentic Italian meal (of course!). But they may not know that the neighborhood once had another nickname. When Italian immigrants first began settling along Union and Lincoln Streets in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the neighborhood that developed was simply called “The Hill.” Strong family ties and a rich culture helped transform the neighborhood into Delaware’s own Little Italy.

What’s in a name? Hagley Museum and Library includes the original Du Pont Company black powder mills and the famous family’s first American home, but the Hagley name is a bit of a mystery. Records show that the estate was called Hagley as far back as 1797, long before E.I. du Pont ever bought the property. Historians guess that the owner at that time, Rumford Dawes, named his property after a popular estate in England with the same name, but without a time machine they may never know for sure.

Got a grasp on Wilmington history? Check out our D.C. trivia.