Iron, a hill and a park: The long heritage of Iron Hill, DelawareMay 31, 2023 01:44PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Just south of Newark, Delaware stands a geographic feature which played a prominent role not only in America’s fight for independence, but also the industrial and cultural heritage of the region. Iron Hill is west of Delaware Route 896 and south of Interstate 95, in the Pencader Hundred area, an outcropping of a weathered igneous intrusion of what is now called the Iron Hill gabbro. Iron Hill is one of the tallest geographic sites in Delaware with a peak elevation of 328 feet. Gabbro is a dark green to black colored rock which contains plagioclase feldspar, pyroxene and olivine. The Iron Hill deposit also includes iron oxide in the form of hematite, goethite and limonite. It is these iron minerals which were mined more than three centuries ago that featured prominently in the history of the Diamond State.
Aside from many Quakers, there were thousands of Welsh Baptists who wanted to escape religious persecution in England in the late 17th century. They came to Delaware—and hearing of iron deposits southwest of what is today Newark, Welsh miners petitioned William Penn for tracts of land in the area.
In 1701, Penn granted them 30,000 acres, including the hill which they called “Pencader,” which means ‘the highest seat” in Welsh. These “Welsh tracts” became popular to new settlers, many of whom stayed to mine the local iron deposits. It wasn’t just miners who were interested.
In “Delaware: A Bicentennial History,” author Carol E. Hoffecker mentions other groups drawn to the region. Around the time of the 30,000-acre grant, 16 other Baptists from the Welsh counties of Pembroke and Caermarthen wanted to go to America as “church emigrants” to seek greater freedom. After an initial stay in Pennsylvania, they came south, settled near Iron Hill and started the first Baptist Church in Delaware, in a small structure called the Welsh Tract Church. The surviving church building was constructed in 1746 and is known today as the Welsh Tract Old School Baptist Church.
Human activity in the area of Iron Hill goes back many centuries, well before Europeans arrived. Lenni-Lenape Indians used jasper from the site to make arrowheads. Iron Hill is not far from the border with Maryland and was first identified in print by Augustine Herman in 1670, labelled as “Yron Hill.” The Welsh miners who came in the early 1700s knew how to work the land. They quickly commenced open pit mining on the hill. Iron was important for making barrel staves, nails, tools and numerous other items. Iron Hill became an important source of ore for the forges which produced these items. George Washington considered the hill critical in doing a reconnaissance of the area. He climbed Iron Hill to observe enemy troop movements leading up to the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge on September 3, 1777. The Battle was more of a skirmish than a large-scale conflict. It was the only battle in Delaware during the Revolutionary War.
Mining continued on Iron Hill until the late 1800s, but demand for the relatively low-grade ore had been declining, making some of the extraction operations unprofitable. J.P. Whitaker operated the last mine there, and he shipped the ore to Principio Furnace in Maryland for smelting and turning into final end products. Some of the mine workers, many of them African-Americans, remained in the area for decades after mining ceased. In 1923, Pierre S. du Pont funded construction of Iron Hill School No. 112C to educate their children. This is a one-room, wood-shingled schoolhouse, 24 feet by 48 feet, which served the area until schools were desegregated in 1965. Afterwards, the schoolhouse turned into the Iron Hill Museum, which held the collections of the Delaware Academy of Science from 1967 to 2016. The schoolhouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.
In the years following mining operations, local citizens wanted to use the land for a new pursuit— so they turned the area into a park. Iron Hill Park has several hiking trails, including the “Mason-Dixon Trail,” a playground, a disc golf course, a pavilion and a “bark park” for dog owners, along with historic sites. Within Iron Hill Park are the remnants of the Indian Jasper Mine, the Iron Hill Hand Dug Mine and the Whitaker Ore Pit. Visitors can also see an old still used to make bootleg liquor and a Revolutionary War era stone wall. Before you leave the park, stop in at the Iron Hill Science Center to view extensive exhibits of local flora and fauna as well as rock and mineral collections and fossil displays.
If you’re an outdoors enthusiast who carries a compass, take note. The iron deposits around the hill may slightly affect compass readings and influence your directions, but the park is still a great spot to hike or simply relax surrounded by nature. Situated not far off of I- 95 just north of Glasgow, Delaware, Iron Hill Park is a low-key, family-oriented place for adults and children to enjoy.
Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square. His ten books focus mostly on the Chester County/mid-Atlantic region. Gene’s latest book is “Forgotten Founding Fathers: Pennsylvania and Delaware in the American Revolution”. His books are available on his website at www.GenePisasale.com and also on www.Amazon.com. Gene can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].