Born of Rivers

Its waterways made Wilmington a national economic force, but heavy industry left a toxic legacy. New efforts aim to restore the health of two major rivers.

Any history of Delaware’s largest city must acknowledge Wilmington’s inextricable link to three rivers: the Brandywine, the Christina, and the Delaware.

 “The rivers were everything in the early days—transportation, food, industry–going back to the indigenous inhabitants of Wilmington,” says Debra Campagnari Martin, historic preservation planner in the city’s Department of Land Use and Planning,

“We have such variety in river character, too, among the three of them. The Brandywine, with its significant fall, was favored for milling, the Christina for sheltered docks and industrial transportation, and the Delaware for deepwater transport, food, etc.”

It could be said that the rivers gave birth to Wilmington. Those waterways played a pivotal role in the economy and growth of the region, and that role continues today. With all the benefits of a vibrant city, however, there come issues such as legacy pollution and more.

A recent effort aims to address historical problems and restore the rivers to health: the Christina-Brandywine River Remediation Restoration Resilience project.

“CBR4 is not a program necessarily, but more a way of thinking about things,” says key player Todd Keyser of Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. “We need to look at all variables to make sure that when we finish the project, it’s community endorsed, it’s resilient, and it meets the goals for the longtime cleanup and sustainability of the waterways.”

The Beginning

Wilmington emerged, according to “The History of the Rivers,” “when the Swedes sailed up the Delaware River and arrived at the mouth of the Christina River in Wilmington, [where] they found an ideal port location to ship trade goods and supplies between the colonies and Sweden. Not only did the site provide easy access to shipping channels, it also provided access to the Brandywine, where shad and shellfish abounded.” The history is explained on the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control website.

After periods of Swedish (1638), then Dutch (1655) colonization, the area stabilized under British rule in 1664. In 1739 it was granted a borough charter by King of England George II. The charter changed the name from Willington (after Thomas Willing, who had organized the area in a grid pattern, as in Philadelphia) to Wilmington, presumably after Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington, a favorite of the king.

Thanks to its location and three confluent rivers, Wilmington developed rapidly into a prosperous community. The city’s deepwater port, 65 miles from the mouth of Delaware Bay, gave Wilmington access to the Atlantic seaboard and international and markets. By the 1970s, Wilmington was ranked the top North American port for imports of fresh fruit and juice concentrate, moving about 7 million tons of goods a year at its peak.

The city also became a leader in other industries. During the industrial revolution the Christina and Brandywine riverfronts in Wilmington were populated by heavy industry, including tanneries and chemical factories. Then, with the shift away from wooden-hulled ships in the mid-19th century, the Delaware River became the center of iron shipbuilding. The first iron steamboat built in America, the Bangor, was made in Wilmington.

The Christina and Brandywine also had a significant effect on the residential pattern in the city. Wilmington lies on the fall line between the flat coastal plain and hilly areas to the west. East of Market Street and along the Christina, the land is flat, low, and, in places, marshy. The west side of Market Street rises to a point that marks the watershed between the Brandywine and the Christina. The hilly and therefore healthier west side was more attractive for early neighborhoods such as Quaker Hill, which was settled in the 1730s.

The Brandywine

Though the Christina and Delaware rivers were integral to Wilmington’s founding and evolution, the Brandywine is the star. “The Brandywine is really Wilmington’s superpower,” says historian David Tabler. “That is the river that built early Wilmington.”

The fall line is key. “It generates tremendous flow rate for rivers located along its path,” Tabler explains. “You can trace it from just below Long Island, down through Trenton, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, Washington–all the way to Birmingham.”

All those cities grew tremendously in the 1800s. Wilmington, Tabler notes, was the only city in Delaware on the fall line, so the Brandywine could provide steady hydro power for mills of all kinds. “Ashford Stidham built a barley mill on the creek in 1640,” Tabler says. “By the early 1800s, Wilmington was the No. 1 flour producer in the United States.”

By the 1830s, there were dozens of mills on the Brandywine, and they were vitally important in developing American Industry before the introduction of steam power. They produced paper, cotton, textiles, and, famously, gunpowder at Eleutherian Mills. Built in 1802, it was the seed from which the mighty DuPont Company grew.

War and Peace

The Brandywine, a tributary of the Christina, also played a significant role in American history: More troops fought in the Battle of the Brandywine—upstream, near Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania—than in any other battle of the American Revolution.

Wilmington, in fact, figured prominently in all of America’s major wars. By the outbreak of the Civil War, the city already had a strong industrial base, so it responded quickly to the great demands of the Union Army. The city produced ships, railroad cars, gunpowder, shoes, tents, uniforms, blankets, and other war-related goods. By 1868, Wilmington was producing more iron ships than the rest of the country combined. It was first in the production of gunpowder and second in production of carriages and leather.

During the World Wars, Wilmington’s shipyards, steel foundries, machinery and chemical producers operated 24 hours a day. Other manufacturers produced automobiles, leather products, clothing, and more.

A Toxic Legacy

Such industry provided a plentitude of jobs, but they also exacted a price from the environment. As plants and mills closed after the wars, they left behind a legacy of pollution from heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other persistent, toxic and bioaccumulative (PBT) compounds.

Over the past three decades, various efforts have been initiated to investigate and remediate the contamination of the rivers and land. Two of the most recent are the Brandywine River Restoration Trust (BRRT) and CBR4.

BRRT’s goal is to enable “the environmental recovery of the beautiful and bounteous Brandywine River,” to increase access for all people for recreation and education, and to facilitate migration of American shad there.” It has been instrumental in the removal of dams from its lowest reaches. BRRT is part of CBR4.

CBR4, under auspices of DNREC, intends to address legacy pollution, restore the native ecology, and prepare for the changing climate and other threats to river health in the lower Christina and tidal portion of the Brandywine. In alignment with the Watershed Approach to Toxics Assessment and Restoration program (WATAR), the goal is to make the rivers fishable, swimmable, and drinkable in the shortest timeframe possible. Several public and private entities, including the Delaware Nature Society and several divisions of DNREC, are partners in the project.

CBR4’s success will take years. The current phase, initiated in 2021, involves two concurrent efforts: a sediment remediation feasibility study and planning the strategies and framework needed to restore the rivers to health.

“We’ve been working with our contractor, BrightFields, developing work plans with them to sample within the waterways where we need more data to be able to better inform our feasibility study,” says Keyser, a hydrologist with DNREC’s Division of Waste and Hazardous Substances. “It’s going great.”

Going forward, Keyser says, engineering, funding, and coordination among all the partners will be critical. 

Those seeking to restore Wilmington’s rivers to their pristine past can look for inspiration to the Wilmington Riverfront. In 1995, a governor’s task force created the Riverfront Development Corporation of Delaware, which purchased a large area of land on the Christina River’s west bank and focused on creating economic vitality there while enhancing the environment, encouraging historic preservation, and promoting public access.

Today that property is home to an urban wildlife refuge, luxury apartments and condominiums, restaurants, a children’s museum, a conference center, the Christina Riverwalk and more. The clean-up and repurposing of the land is one of Delaware’s greatest success stories and adds millions each year to its gross domestic product.

It stands as a successful new chapter in the ongoing story of Wilmington and its three rivers.

Photo by Jill Constantine

About the Author: Long-time Delaware journalist Bob Yearick can often be found riding his bike along the Brandywine or fly-fishing for trout in some of our most beautiful local waterways.

Learn more


The History of the Rivers

The Christina-Brandywine River Remediation Restoration Resilience project

Brandywine River Restoration Trust

If you want to help:

Participate in the annual Christina Cleanup Day

Subscribe here to Delaware Nature Society’s advocacy newsletter to stay informed of emerging policy changes and action alerts.

Ambitious DNREC Initiative Aims to Revitalize the Christina and Brandywine Rivers – DNREC (