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Following Swedish History in Du Pont Country

October 16, 1988|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

WILMINGTON, Del. — Autumn is putting its golden crown on the 350th anniversary of the founding of New Sweden beside the Christina River. Wilmington, where the Du Pont fortune was founded, began as Christinahamn, capital of New Sweden.

When driving between New York City, Philadelphia and Washington in recent years we have stayed on Interstate 95 through Wilmington rather than stop at this port city that reaches into the hills and inland waterways of the beautiful Brandywine Valley.

We returned here to study the history of New Sweden and perhaps add at least a footnote to the Swedish background that is part of my own family heritage.

The founding of the first Swedish colony in North America is memorialized in Wilmington at Ft. Christina Park on an isthmus created by the union of the Brandywine and Christina rivers. From there the isthmus broadens into Wilmington Industrial Park. The waters around it flow on into the Delaware River, Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean.

Fall Tapestry

We found leaves tinting into a fall tapestry of color in Ft. Christina Park and along the banks of the creek and river. We circled along them and went down 7th Street from the central city, then parked our rental car to walk the walled pedestrian promenade for about 200 yards into the memorial area that marks the first landing place in New Sweden.

When the 300th anniversary of New Sweden was celebrated in 1938, then President Franklin D. Roosevelt came here with a delegation from Washington to accept from the people of Sweden a monumental sculpture by Swedish sculptor Carl Milles. Donations from 225,000 people all over Sweden funded this symbol of friendship between the two countries.

Close by in the park is a log cabin that may be one of the earliest in America, perhaps built by Finns.

Another story of America is told on a plaque near the cabin. It's the story of "Anthony"--Antoni Swart, Delaware's first known black settler. He boarded the Fogel Grip in the West Indies in 1639 and became a free man in New Sweden and an employee of Gov. Johan Printz.

From Ft. Christina Park the exploration of Wilmington, population about 75,000, leads into the historic landmarks and renaissance of downtown, then out to suburban areas where visitors can walk beneath autumn-tinted trees known as "Mrs. du Pont's pearls."

A short walk up 7th Street from Ft. Christina Park took us to Old Swedes Holy Trinity Church, built of Brandywine River stones and bricks from Sweden. The church was consecrated by Swedish Lutherans in 1699. Its black walnut pulpit was built large enough to accommodate the first pastor, Erik Bjork, who was built like a pro football linebacker.

On the grounds of this church is the 17th-Century stone Hendrickson House, now a museum of the New Sweden colony.

Old World Elegance

The wrought-iron facade of the Grand Opera House, rising above the shops and restaurants of Market Street Mall, lights up during evenings of opera, ballet and orchestras.

The Du Pont Building in Rodney Square contains the grand Hotel du Pont, a tradition of Old World elegance since 1913. The Playhouse presents Broadway shows in the square, which also is the site of summer concerts and Christmas caroling.

For do-it-yourself exploring, get maps and information from the Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1300 Market St., Wilmington, Del. 19801. Call toll-free (800) 422-1181 or (302) 652-4088.

Old Town Hall Museum on Market Street is in a Georgian-style building completed in 1800. The rotating exhibits depict Delaware's historic and artistic growth, including the folk art of children's toys.

A short distance north along the parklands of the Brandywine River the Delaware Art Museum presents the largest American collection of English pre-Raphaelite paintings, along with American masters and contemporary artists of the last 150 years.

The story of the Du Pont family is interwoven with virtually every facet of Wilmington and the Brandywine valley.

E. I. du Pont de Nemours came to Wilmington after the French Revolution and established the family dynasty with the manufacture of gunpowder, which later faded to a minor interest.

Corporate Home

Today the multibillion-dollar Du Pont chemical and manufacturing empire extends to more than 80 factories in 23 states. This has helped make Wilmington the corporate home of more than half of the Fortune 500 companies.

Nemours Mansion and Gardens, open to the public, is a Louis XVI-style chateau spread over 300 acres of French gardens and natural woodlands. Paintings date to the 15th Century, along with period furniture and tapestries.

Winterthur Museum and Gardens, amid rolling hills, houses Henry Francis du Pont's collection of more than 89,000 pieces of classic furniture, ceramics, textiles, paintings and prints created in America between 1640 and 1840.

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