Road Trip

A Celebration of Firsts in Delaware

Sunday, December 2, 2007

WHERE: New Castle, Del.

WHY: Eat like a Colonial, 18th-century attire is the new black, and Harley hogs gone to heaven.

HOW FAR: About seven miles from start to finish.

On Friday, party in New Castle like it's 1787.

Two hundred and twenty years ago on Dec. 7, Delaware ratified the U.S. Constitution, becoming the first of the 13 original states to officially assert its independence. And though the signing took place in Dover, Del., the best place to celebrate in 18th-century style is in the state's first capital, New Castle.

Most likely, if you've driven Interstate 95 between Baltimore and Philadelphia, you've seen New Castle flash by. But that's new New Castle. You need to venture a little farther -- in miles and time -- to get to Old New Castle.

Settled by the Dutch in 1651, New Castle became a wealthy town in the 1700s, thriving as a transportation hub for goods and travelers and as a center of legal activity and government. In 1776, it became the state capital, but in 1777, the encroaching redcoats chased the powdered wigs to Dover. Yet even after the legislature fled, New Castle remained an important stagecoach stop and a destination on horse-drawn railroad lines. But in the 1840s, the city was bypassed by the new steam coaches, and its heyday was history.

Luckily for day-trippers, New Castle's short stint as a well-to-do capital left it with a well-preserved town center that has earned National Historic Landmark status. Today, the narrow cobblestone streets lead to stately structures built in the Federal, Georgian and late Victorian styles. Rather than being closed off with velvet ropes, the stolid buildings invite visitors inside to their restaurants, pubs and museums. And while the historic downtown might not be as lively as the newer section, that's part of its Old America charm.

"One hundred thousand people drive by New Castle every day, and most don't stop," says Mike Schwartz, founder of Mike's Famous Harley-Davidson, which is right off the highway. "But those that do stop find New Castle to be a treasure."

-- Ben Chapman

© 2007 The Washington Post Company