There’s Another City Right By Swarthmore

wilmington delaware skyline

As a proud Delawarean, I am often quick to inform my peers about the greatest state in the country. They are equally quick to tell me that they have never been to, thought about, or (in the most extreme cases) even heard of Delaware. They are shocked to meet someone actually from the state.

Even more shocking is the revelation that Wilmington – my hometown and Delaware’s most populous city – is actually a shorter drive from Swarthmore than Philadelphia. So why do we never go?

Academic and extracurricular field trips are relatively common, with multiple courses or clubs taking students to Washington, D.C., New York City, or even other countries for educational visits. Entire classes are based in Philly, bringing students into the city on a weekly basis, and yet I have never heard about anyone going to Delaware.

One might argue that this is because the aforementioned cities are more accessible than Wilmington. It’s true that the SEPTA trip is slightly annoying – the only way to do it is by going through Philly. But, the drive to Wilmington is easy and quick. And groups from Swarthmore often drive, making use of the college’s van fleet: it’s free and simple to reserve a van provided you have a certified driver in your group.

As I see it, we don’t go to Wilmington because it just isn’t as overtly exciting as some of the larger cities in the area. Still, the city is the largest in Delaware and the area has plenty of historical and artistic sites that would be of interest to Swarthmore students.

For those who are unfamiliar with Wilmington, I will give you a brief history. The Lenni Lenape people are the indigenous inhabitants of the land, which was then colonized by the Swedes. If you want to go back that far, you can visit the Old Swedes Church (part of the relatively new First State National Historical Park) or sail down the river on a full-scale replica of the Kalmar Nyckel, the Swedish colonial ship. 

After the Swedes came the Dutch and the British, until Quakers moved in and officially founded the city in the 1730s. At the start of the 19th century, the du Pont family came to Delaware and established a gunpowder plant on the Brandywine River, catapulting the economic growth of the area. This plant (and the adjacent home and gardens) is now the Hagley Museum, where you can learn about early American industry and the du Pont family (if you’ve heard the name du Pont somewhere before, yes, they probably own(ed) it).

Unsurprisingly, many of the other interesting places in and around Wilmington are current or former du Pont family properties. One highlight is the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library, which houses a 90,000-object collection, a 1,000-acre garden, and a comprehensive research library covering the 17th-20th centuries. There’s also the Nemours Estate, a French neoclassical mansion with a formal garden, and the Mt. Cuba Center, a large botanical garden where you can learn about conservation research or earn an ecological gardening certificate.

Outside of the du Pont sites (of which I provided a very truncated list), there are lots of other things to do. On Market St. in downtown Wilmington, the Delaware Historical Society has a museum and a research library, both of which are open to the public and quite extensive in their collections cataloging centuries of Delaware history.

A few blocks away from the Historical Society is one of the artistic centers of Wilmington: the Grand Opera House, which was initially constructed as a Masonic temple in 1871 and is prized for its cast-iron facade. Currently, OperaDelaware, the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, and the First State Ballet Theatre perform there, along with a lineup of touring artists making stops in Wilmington.

Another artistic highlight is the Delaware Art Museum, which houses many works by famous Wilmingtonian Howard Pyle and the largest collection of pre-Raphaelite art in the country. The museum recently exhibited a collection of works from the Rossetti family, which came from the Tate Britain in London and was on display in the U.S. for the first time ever.

Numerous other venues including (but not limited to!) The Delaware Contemporary, Delaware Theatre Company, and Wilmington Drama League often have events worth driving over the Pennsylvania border to experience.

In addition to all of the historical and artistic resources in Wilmington, it is also just a lovely place to visit. There are award-winning state parks, a beautiful riverwalk, and tax-free shopping. 

If you go beyond the Wilmington area, you might find yourself at the well-preserved historic town of New Castle, the Georgist Single Tax community in Arden, or what was once deemed the country’s number-one party school on their Newark campus.

So, consider making the short drive (or the slightly longer train trip) from Swarthmore to see what Wilmington – and Delaware as a whole – have to offer. And next time someone from home asks where you go to school, try saying, “It’s a small liberal arts college outside of Wilmington.” Just don’t be surprised when they assume you mean North Carolina.

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