Walker’s Bank, the historic dwelling that housed immigrant powder mill workers and their families along the banks of the Brandywine, has fallen into a profound state of disrepair and is slated for demolition. However, because of the efforts of passionate preservationists and stakeholders who are speaking up, the property owners have agreed to take steps to stabilize the building with tarps and other materials as an interim measure.
The community-wide support for the restoration of the structure was even etched in snow above the frozen Brandywine River this week.
Walker’s Bank, which sits on the banks of Brandywine River near Hagley, is an extremely significant example of the industrial village dwelling and the last remaining workers’ housing of its kind.
It is a “back-to-back” style structure, originally comprising 8 units, with 4 entrances facing east and 4 facing west. This style construction is not only distinct for the era, but also for the location along the slopes of the Brandywine. The east and west entrances were efficiently built at different elevations to accommodate the sloped land, which is distinctive among the back-to-back style.
Walker’s Bank is on the National Register of Historic Places and was well-maintained until the current owners purchased it in 2002. It has suffered extreme neglect and now this iconic, valuable, enduring local landmark is threatened to be demolished through the owners’ neglect. All residential and commercial property owners have a responsibility to perform basic repairs and property maintenance. It’s troubling to the community when any property falls into disrepair through sheer neglect, and particularly so when the property is an irreplaceable landmark integral to our local history, and the deferred basic maintenance could have been remedied at reasonable cost had the damage not compounded. The property is an irreplaceable landmark integral to our local history.
This is especially disheartening because of how significant worker housing is to the history of the du Ponts and the immigrant workforce, who profoundly affected our county’s growth and heritage.
The du Ponts are notable in history for their treatment of employees that far exceeded other manufacturing companies of the era. They actively recruited and retained a strong, predominantly Irish workforce, paying high wages and providing significant benefits including free or low-cost housing. This reciprocal relationship fostered a sense of trust and loyalty that was critical to the growth and success of the du Ponts, and to promoting the upward mobility of the immigrants who risked their lives in the powder mills for the opportunity to establish a better life than was available in their native countries.
My great-great grandfather, Patrick McDade, came from Donegal, Ireland, to Wilmington as a young man around 1872. He worked in the powder mill and was rewarded with rent-free housing because he prevented an explosion in the mill. In later years, when he needed more space to accommodate his family, he asked to move to the desirable home located at 18 Walker’s Bank. He was told he could move but would have to pay rent for that home; he agreed. He lived there until he died in 1929, and his daughters and grandchildren resided at 17 and 18 Walker’s Bank until about 1950 when all of Walker’s Bank was intended for eviction and demolition.
The only reason we still have the last structure is because one other immigrant family, the Ferraros, took a stand to protect their home. The du Ponts responded and allowed the Ferraros to remain. The last block of Walker’s Bank was saved once and deserves continued protection.
Another factor that has contributed to the demise of the structure has been the deed restriction imposed by DuPont decades ago, which prevents the building from being inhabited because of the possibility that the ground is contaminated. Councilman Bob Weiner told constituents on Thursday, however, that the DuPont Company is now considering removing the redevelopment deed restriction.
With such a rich history, it is disheartening that the current owners have neglected basic property maintenance such that this 200-year-old landmark has deteriorated from good condition to possible extinction in only 15 years under their care. We show our values in what we care for and what we neglect, what we preserve and what we destroy.
With the support of the county officials and with the cooperation of the current owners, a reasonable arrangement can be reached to protect to this landmark. An emergency stabilization effort by the current owners could allow the building to be sold (to Hagley, Dow/DuPont or someone else.)
How this story will be told in another 200 years says a lot about our values. I hope in 200 years our descendants will know we preserved the enormous contributions of the industrial era and the immigrant powder mill families that made Wilmington one of the most important manufacturing cities in the country at the turn of the century.