Touring Delaware history, hardly by the book but rather for one


Dating from 1780, Barratt’s Chapel in Frederica, Del., is the oldest surviving church in the United States built by and for Methodists. (Andrea Sachs/The Washington Post)
April 12, 2012

I wanted the free book, no matter the cost.

For the limited-edition “Landmarks and Legends,” I would drive the entire state of Delaware, from bottom to top. I would leap over fences and stumble through darkness illuminated only by automobile headlights. I would walk beneath a halo of vultures. Obtaining this book was my primary mission and my sole reason for, well, being in Delaware.

Delaware History Trail: Where to stay, what to do and more

The state’s tourism office issued the Xtreme Sightseeing challenge in December, dangling a coffee-table tome as a trophy. The contest resembles a scavenger hunt: Visit at least six designated attractions along the Delaware History Trail in each of the state’s three counties. Log the five-figure code posted on the official sign into your “passport,” a trio of sheets printed off the group’s Web site. Send in your findings and await your well-earned copy, which has a retail price of $25.

The trail offers a choice of 12 stops per county, with some clumping around such urban areas as Wilmington (six) and Dover (five).

When plotting my route, I focused on efficiency and speed. For example, I skipped outlier attractions and ignored business hours, since I had no plans to enter any buildings and dawdle over exhibits. My strategy: scribble and scram.

Delaware may be nicknamed the First State (for being at the head of the line to ratify the Constitution), but it ranks second-to-last in size. It measures a bitty nine miles across at its narrowest point and 96 miles from top to bottom. On the page, my northbound road trip resembled an armless stick person. I started in Delmar, the big toe on the left foot, and ended in Wilmington, around the hairline.

The first stop should have been a quickie, the Mason-Dixon marker in the southernmost county of Sussex. I puttered along pastoral Route 54, passing sleeping fields and squat homes with tended lawns. I searched for the pile of stones with little success. I started to grow paranoid. Perhaps someone had stolen the sign or, even worse, maybe I wasn’t even in Delaware. I checked license plates for clues but couldn’t find a consensus.

I pulled into the town office for help. A clerk, hardly surprised by my befuddlement, informed me that I was in Maryland; to reach Delaware, I had to cross the street. Though my attraction was in that other state, she provided me with detailed directions, plus luck in my quest.

I saw the trail sign from the road and was able to decipher the code through the windshield, but not the small type on the historical placard. I wondered about the names, dates and moments I wasn’t learning about. Eventually, my curiosity prevailed. I stepped out of the car and read every line of type.

After that, the game changed. It’s not that I cared less about the book; I just started to care more about Delaware. I wanted to get to know this oft-snubbed state. For instance, I became interested in Delaware’s fishing holes (Phillips Landing in Laurel), Quakers (Camden Friends Meeting), Methodists (Barratt’s Chapel in Frederica) and legislators, including Nathaniel Mitchell, the first Laurel homeboy to hold the governor’s office. At Old Christ Church, a barnlike red building from the mid-1700s, I snapped a photo of the trail sign (as backup, in case my paperwork blew away) and of Mitchell’s grave, despite the lack of a code on his headstone.

Because my pace had switched from hare to tortoise, I didn’t reach Rehoboth Beach, my last destination in Sussex County, until deep twilight. To locate the Indian River Life-Saving Station, a 19th-century alarm system for incoming ships, I leaned east, toward the Atlantic. However, construction on the Coastal Highway, poor directions and darkness spun me around. The Coast Guard, stationed at Indian River Inlet, eventually came to the rescue. A helpful guardsman on a smoke break delineated a route through the highway’s obstacle course — though in hindsight, I also should have asked to borrow a flashlight.

Despite a yellow moon as big as a cheese pizza, I couldn’t discern the numbers on the sign posted several yards from the structure and the beach. Turning to my car for support, I flicked on the hazards and quickly wrote X-flash-XX-flash. (You didn’t really think I was going to give up the numbers, did you?)

The only marker that fully eluded me was the one at Rehoboth Avenue and the Boardwalk. Though I’d already collected my six for Sussex, I was in the neighborhood. Plus, I’m an overachiever. I circled and squared the area around the visitors center, including the adjoining playground, but I never spotted the sign. I dejectedly gave up but didn’t forget.

The next day, I met Tina Watson, outdoor recreation planner at Smyrna’s Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, which was on the list for Kent County. Watson had completed the tour a few weeks earlier and was awaiting the arrival of her book. (The office will start shipping the prize in late May.) In the visitors center, among images of birds, we gabbed like members of an exclusive club. (To date, only 22 people have completed the jaunt.) Sensing a kinship with my co-trailblazer, I asked her about the mystery sign. She told me that she, too, had struggled to find it and eventually spotted it on the left side of the parking lot. Though tempted to return to Rehoboth, I was too close to victory to look back.

I left my final two stops for Wilmington. I hit Quaker Hill Historic District and the 19th-century brick headquarters of the Quaker Hill Historic Preservation Foundation, then headed straight for the Wilmington & Western Railroad Greenbank Station. The attraction was closed, so I jumped over a low chain to enter the grounds. Near the tracks, I skimmed the informative plaque — 20-mile rail between Wilmington and Landenberg, Pa., connected communities in the Red Clay Valley, closed in the 1920s — before hopping back over the barrier and driving out of Delaware.

At home in Washington, I triumphantly filled out the passport, jotting down six codes for Sussex County, six for Kent and . . . five for New Castle. I ordered a recount. One, two, three, four, five. Oh noooo. I was short one.

I retraced my steps to Wilmington, where I remembered idling at a fork in my head: Should I visit the Holy Trinity/Old Swedes Church or the Hagley Museum and Library? Apparently I never chose either one, but now I would have to. If I ever wanted my book, that is. Which I really did.

Delaware History Trail: Where to stay, what to do and more

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