Along Route 52: Delaware’s Historic Kennett Pike by Andrew D. Engel, archivist, Hagley Museum and Library. Images of America, Arcadia Publishing, 2014.
Kennett Pike, Route 52, runs north along a ridge from Wilmington, Delaware, through the small towns of Greenville, Centerville, Fairville, and Mendenhall to intersect Baltimore Pike at Hamorton, just east of Kennett Square and Longwood Gardens. Pour a cup of water on the eastern side and they say it will find its way into Brandywine Creek. Pour it on the western side and it will flow to the Red Clay Creek.
Longwood Gardens is about a 20-minute drive from my home, mostly along the Kennett Pike. It is a beautiful, quiet drive, especially with fall colors. The Kennett Pike was once owned and developed by Pierre du Pont, who also built Longwood Gardens, and they both retain much of the same quiet elegance.
The history of Kennett Pike is a complex mix of state government, corporate ownership, and the du Pont families, in a form that is unknown today.
The Delaware portion of Kennett Pike was created as a toll road by the Wilmington & Kennett Turnpike Corporation in 1811 by an act of the Delaware legislature to connect Wilmington with existing turnpikes serving the southern suburbs of Philadelphia. The corporation, itself, was owned by shareholders, mostly du Pont family members.
The importance of the Kennett Pike was indicated by its 100-foot right-of-way, even though only 20 feet of that was initially paved. Tolls were based on the vehicle and the farm products being transported. Farmers traveling between their properties and Sunday church-goers were exempt.
The area along the Pike as it emerged from Wilmington became the favorite place for the du Ponts to build their mansions. They jokingly referred to it as “The Neighborhood,” although it was unlike any neighborhood we grew up in. Henry Francis du Pont lived in Winterthur, now a world-class museum. Pierre du Pont lived nearby with his mother at St. Amour, now torn down as part of Tower Hill School. Pierre’s sister, Isabella, lived in Gibraltar, today still standing but dilapidated and vacant. Across the street was Coleman du Pont’s daughter’s house, now known as the Goodstay Center, a conference center owned by the University of Delaware. The Neighborhood had a community pool before the use of chlorine. It was drained and refilled every Thursday night in preparation for the weekend. The Neighborhood is still very upscale with expensive, modern homes interspersed between the museums, conference centers, and tony private schools.
Henry A. du Pont, father of Henry Francis, owned half the shares in the Turnpike corporation, and in 1916, Pierre offered in a letter to improve and widen the entire length from Pennsylvania Avenue in Wilmington to the Pennsylvania state line at his own expense if, he implied, he could have some ownership. Henry A. offered to sell Pierre all of his shares and encourage the other shareholders to do the same. The deal was done, and Pierre got the entire Pike for $70,000. Pierre was developing Longwood Gardens and wanted to preserve the beauty of the surrounding area. He removed the tolls and banned billboards and trolley tracks that were becoming common elsewhere.
Pierre’s plan was to improve the Kennett Pike all the way north to the village of Hamorton in Pennsylvania where it joins Baltimore Pike, Route 1. He had already started on the Pennsylvania portion that most needed improvement, and when he wrote the letter in 1916, he had completed the short portion from the state line north to Mendenhall. Further improvements stopped during World War I, but it was fully open to traffic by July, 1920.
There is still one avenue of research I am exploring that concerns the Pennsylvania portion of Kennett Pike. John Haedrich is a local history buff. He and his wife, Barbara Ann, are proprietors of the Longwood Bed & Breakfast Inn, a charming former farm located on the Kennett Pike close to Baltimore Pike and Longwood Gardens. John has a map of the Kennett Pike from the 1840s when it was little more than a dirt road. We want to superimpose that map on a current map to see if the route is the same. He tells me it shows the Kennett Pike zig-zaging from farm to farm, and he theorizes Pierre bought out all of the farms and straightened the right-of-way.
Could well be. Route 52 north of Baltimore Pike (now Lenape Road) had bisected Longwood Garden’s property. It was recently moved during a period of perhaps five years about a quarter of a mile east so that the separate parcels could join into a greatly expanded and improved Longwood Gardens Meadow. I had heard Pierre had originally owned that portion, too. Someone must know about all of this, and I hope to find that person in the coming months.
The improvements cost Pierre over $750,000, but he sold the Delaware portion back to Delaware for just $1. What a guy! Thank you, thank you. I am enjoying it all.