Railroad depot to historical venue: the Newark History MuseumOct 17, 2022 09:59AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Walking inside the Newark History Museum, you experience a unique part of local heritage: you’re in an old train depot which operated for decades. The Pennsylvania Railroad Station at 429 South College Avenue served customers along the busy northeast corridor between Philadelphia and Baltimore. Designed by architect S.T. Fuller, the building was constructed in 1877 for just over $9,000 by the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad to replace an earlier structure. Operating for nearly a century, it was closed in the 1970s and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982; an historical marker nearby tells the story. The building was purchased by the city of Newark and is being used by the Historical Society to showcase people, places and events important in Delaware history.
The Museum itself is a time capsule taking visitors back to the late 19th century, when train travel was the fastest way to go. The structure is beautifully restored, with its steeply sloping roof, dormers and brickwork all superbly intact. Situated alongside the tracks, it feels like you can catch the next train when it stops for passengers. The interior provides an eclectic walk through local history, with numerous exhibits showcasing things dating from the late 1700s up through the 20th century.
Newark’s heritage is a multi-faceted story. According to the Museum website, it had its beginnings in the early 1700s, with development of a small English, Scots-Irish and Welsh hamlet along two Indian trails and the line where the Christina and White Clay Creeks moved toward the Delaware River. The area served travelers from Maryland and nearby regions to Philadelphia. By 1758, the bustling crossroads received a Charter from King George II; Newark was officially born. Entrepreneurs built numerous mills, including ones producing cotton, paper and flour along the creeks over the years. The Museum displays an important link to our country’s inception: a book open to a page highlighting the Battle at Cooch’s Bridge, which occurred on September 3, 1777. Cooch’s Bridge was the only battle during the Revolutionary War fought on Delaware soil.
A Museum exhibit mentions Deandale as Newark’s first industrial neighborhood. Joseph Dean was an Englishman who came to America and made a fortune in the wool business. The Dean Woolen Mill became a major supplier to the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Joseph Dean’s son William purchased property nearby and named streets after family members. A fire later destroyed the facility. A fiber mill was subsequently built on the site, which became the American Hard Fibre Company that produced vulcanized fibre used in luggage, waste cans, gears, bearings and other applications. The firm was merged into the National Vulcanized Fibre Company, which had its headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware. The plant operated until 1991; the former mill site was renovated and made into offices, apartments, a restaurant and retail shops.
The area’s roots include a link to nearby Chester County, Pennsylvania from which the New London Academy moved. The school was renamed the Newark Academy and would eventually become the University of Delaware. In 1837, the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad - later the Pennsylvania Railroad- linked Newark to points around the region. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, predecessor of CSX, came in 1886. Industrial concerns including the Curtis Paper Company and others helped to diversify the local economy. The town's population grew rapidly through the 1920s; a large retail market developed with the University and industrial expansion. The Great Depression slowed economic growth, but the pace of development increased substantially during World War II and the post-war years. Several Du Pont facilities opened in the 1940s; in 1951, Chrysler built its Newark Assembly Plant.
The Newark History Museum provides interesting “slices” of many stories. You’ll see a large neon sign from a local icon- Minster’s Jewelers- which operated in downtown since 1895. It closed in 2018 after serving customers for 123 years. Another neon sign next to it is from the State Theater, which opened its doors in 1929. Built in a neoclassical style, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. The Museum has two of the original seats from the theater in its collection. Sadly, the building was razed in 1989.
Curator Mary E. Torbey stops and smiles at each exhibit as if they were old friends. A catalogue from Newark College from 1838- 1839 courtesy of the Lamborn family is in one cabinet. An Estey Pump Organ made in the 1870s stands along one wall; it was originally used in Ott’s Chapel, donated to the Museum in 2008. Women who enjoy seeing personal items from yesteryear will delight at finding a parasol from the late 1880s in one corner, a Fader family bodice and skirt circa early 1900s nearby. A Newark High School Spirit exhibit- complete with mannikins in school uniforms- is around another corner.
Kaitlyn Tanis, President of the Newark Historical Society has put together a fascinating museum with the help of her team; Torbey says they are always considering new additions to the collection for future exhibits. Walking around the building, one appreciates the historic train station setting and the numerous artifacts which bring it to life. They are filled with so many memories, shared by the hundreds of people who come to see the displays, re-living parts of their past.
Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. His ten books focus on the Chester County/mid-Atlantic region. His latest book is “Forgotten Founding Fathers: Pennsylvania and Delaware in the American Revolution.” Gene’s books are available through his website at www.GenePisasale.com and on www.Amazon.com. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].