Established by Quaker merchants in the 1730s, Wilmington was a milling and grain-shipping center for farmers in Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania. In 1802 E.I. established his powder mills upstream from Wilmington, intending to harness the Brandywine River’s power and to use the city’s port for shipping. DuPont provided business to local artisans and shopkeepers and employed area residents, but Wilmington residents remained uneasy about the danger of explosives manufacture so close to the city. Their fears were realized in 1854 when three wagon loads of black powder exploded while traveling through the city, killing two residents and causing extensive property damage. DuPont responded quickly to the tragedy, compensating the bereaved families and paying for rebuilding and repairs.
As the company diversified into new explosives in the late 19th century, DuPont operations spread throughout the Wilmington area. In 1880 Lammot du Pont built the Repauno Chemical Company, a dynamite plant located across the Delaware River from Wilmington at Gibbstown, N.J. Ten years later, DuPont opened a smokeless powder plant at Carney’s Point, also on the New Jersey side of the river. Following the 1902 change in management, the company established the Experimental Station, a general research laboratory, across the Brandywine River from DuPont’s first mills.
DuPont’s consolidation of the powder-making industry after 1902 increased the need for management personnel and larger office space. President T. Coleman du Pont advocated moving the company to New York City, but cousins Pierre and Alfred insisted that DuPont should remain near the Brandywine. Coleman agreed to keep the company local as long as the headquarters were close to banks, railroad connections and hotel facilities, a compromise that brought DuPont to downtown Wilmington. In 1905 the DuPont Building was completed at the northwest corner of Tenth and Market streets. Seven years later, the company added the 200-room Hotel du Pont, the most elegant and costly hotel ever built in Wilmington.
Wilmington was a small industrial city with modest buildings and limited infrastructure, and DuPont executives recognized that the city would have to grow along with the company. Pierre du Pont’s assistant, John J. Raskob, worked with city officials to build a new courthouse and public park across from the DuPont Building. Coleman personally financed construction of a highway from Delaware’s southern border to Wilmington and pushed for a number of other roads leading to the city. Demands for DuPont powder during World War I created jobs and with them came new housing, including Wawaset, a planned community built by DuPont for white-collar employees. Changes such as these signaled a shift in the city’s economic base from industrial production to corporate management.
During the Great Depression, Pierre helped form a city relief committee to assist the jobless in Wilmington. The city’s fortunes improved during World War II, when DuPont’s sales nearly tripled. Since World War II, DuPont’s further diversification and success in the chemical industry has strengthened Wilmington’s economy and extended benefits to the surrounding suburbs.
Beyond a purely business relationship, DuPont has been committed to community outreach in the Wilmington area. In the early 1920s, the company financed construction of the Wilmington Institute Free Library and supported the Delaware Art Museum. In 1951 DuPont created the Hagley Museum and Library on the site of the company’s original mills, providing scholars and the general public unique insight into the area’s industrial past. The company and family have also helped meet the needs of Wilmington’s children. In the 1920s and 1930s, Pierre worked tirelessly to reform public schooling in Wilmington and throughout Delaware. Pierre’s cousin Alfred sponsored picnics and outings for the city’s underprivileged children. In his will, Alfred provided funds to establish a hospital for handicapped children, which has become a first-rate pediatric hospital. Although DuPont is now a global science company, it maintains a special relationship with the city that first welcomed E.I. du Pont in 1802.