In it’s formative years, the town of Wilmington, Delaware and its businesses became larger and larger, competing with New Castle as a major shipping port on the Delaware. Wilmington also became a major industrial center thanks to the enormous amount of waterpower generated by the Brandywine River, a tributary of the Delaware. Large mills were set up all along the river, processing grain from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware and transported by Conestoga Wagons. These were huge, horse drawn vehicles invented in Pennsylvania and later used, in slightly smaller versions, by pioneers in the great western migration. Tanning and paper making also made use of the Brandywine’s energy.
But perhaps the biggest industry of all began when Eleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours and family immigrated from France to escape decapitation during a little scuffle that was occurring there. They settled in Delaware and tried several business ventures that were ultimately unsuccessful. Then in 1802 they set up mills for producing black powder, also commonly referred to as gunpowder. (To view these early beginnings, be sure to visit the Hagley Museum on the beautiful Brandywine River: http://www.hagley.org)
The powder mills were built with only three massive walls of stone and no roof. The open sides faced the river in the event of an explosion which would send the force out through the openings. And as carefully as the workers were trained to perform–as their very lives depended on it–explosions did occur. Many of the workers and their families lived on company property close by the mills. But from the start of the work day until quitting time, a gate to the powder yard was locked and none of the family members were allowed beyond it.
The powder itself was a fairly simple composition of saltpeter, sulphur, and charcoal. It was then ground between enormous milling wheels to the proper consistency. But it was the process of the mixing ratio and quality of the ingredients with which du Pont was able to manufacture a superior and dependable product. Soon, countries world wide were discretely buying du Pont’s black powder for both defensive and offensive purposes. He was becoming very wealthy.
The business grew rapidly and by the Civil War, du Pont was supplying at least half the powder used by the Union forces. Over the years the company became more and more diverse and successful. They eventually abandoned black powder manufacture, but branched out into an almost endless array of chemical-based products produced world wide that included the development of the world’s first synthetic fiber. Their physical influence can be seen almost everywhere throughout Delaware, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. The DuPont company is now worth more money than most people can fathom. Their corporate headquarters are still in Wilmington.
From the Civil War onward, the city bloomed in turbulent times due to the production of gunpowder. And other goods were either manufactured or made their way through Wilmington including ships, railroad cars, chemicals and leather goods. But in the 1980s, Wilmington turned from an industrial city to a financial mecca due to the Financial Center Development Act. Laws liberalizing banking restrictions led to the construction of gleaming office centers housing institutions like Bank of America, Chase, Barclays and others. Mostly, these are credit card operations.