Founded in 1631, DELAWARE was once part of neighbouring Pennsylvania – Philadelphia is only ten miles north – until separating in 1776. In 1787 it was also the first original former colony to ratify the Constitution and become a state. Much of Delaware’s prosperity can be traced to its lax incorporation laws that have allowed countless multinational corporations to take up official residence near the state capital, Wilmington, and also to the wealthy Du Pontfamily, who set up shop nearby. Delaware’s perfectly preserved old colonial capital, New Castle, lies on the Delaware Bay, five miles south of I-95. Further south, Dover, the capital, may not detain you long, but beyond it, the small and amiable resorts of Lewes and Rehoboth Beach mark the northern extent of more than twenty miles of mostly unspoiled Atlantic beaches.
Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours and his family arrived in Delaware in 1800, fleeing the wrath of revolutionary France, and set up a gunpowder mill that became the main supplier of conventional explosives to the US government. The family built several huge mansions in the Brandywine Valley north of Wilmington.
A short distance up I-95 from the Rockwood Mansion, the first of the Du Pont mansions is accessible in Bellevue State Park. William du Pont Jr converted a Gothic Revival mansion into his own version of James Madison’s Neoclassical home and called it Bellevue Hall. You can’t get inside, but can visit the grounds and see the charming ponds, woodlands, gardens and tennis courts.
The Hagley Museum, off Hwy-141 just north of Wilmington, showcases the Du Pont family’s 1802 founding of a small water-powered gunpowder mill, which grew over the next century to include larger steam- and electricity-powered factories – most of which are still in working order. Be sure to tour the luxurious Du Pont mansion, Eleutherian Mills, the centrepiece of the 235-acre estate.
The enormous, dusty-pink Nemours Mansion was built by Alfred du Pont in 1910 and named for the family’s ancestral home in France, and is surrounded by a 300-acre, French-style garden. Inside the mansion, you’ll find plenty of lavish rooms (including ones devoted to fitness, bowling and ice-making) and a collection of early twentieth-century automobiles.
Off Hwy-52, the one-time Du Pont family estate of Winterthur now displays American decorative arts from 1640 to 1860, each of its 175 rooms showcasing styles ranging from a simple Shaker cottage to a beautiful three-storey elliptical staircase taken from a North Carolina plantation. Separately, the estate galleries present a selection of furniture, textiles, ceramics, paintings and glass in a museum setting.
Delaware’s original capital, NEW CASTLE, fronts the broad Delaware River, just six miles south of Wilmington via Hwy-141. Founded in the 1650s by the Dutch and taken over by the British in 1664, New Castle has managed to survive intact, its quiet cobbled streets and immaculate eighteenth-century brick houses shaded by ancient hardwood trees.
The heart of New Castle is the tree-filled town square that spreads east from the shops of Delaware Street, dominated by the stalwart tower of the Immanuel Episcopal Church, built in 1703 and bordered by tidy rows of eighteenth-century gravestones. On the west edge of the green, the Old Court House, 211 Delaware St (Wed–Sat 10am–3.30pm, Sun 1.30–4.30pm; free), was built in 1732 and served as the first state capitol until 1881. Its dainty cupola provided the vista from which surveyors determined the state’s arcing northern border, drawn up when Delaware seceded from Pennsylvania (and Great Britain) in 1776.