Looking to avoid the inevitable summertime congestion caused by flocks of beachgoers migrating south on Rt. 1, many drivers spurn the superhighway and opt for the slower and steadier pace of Rt. 13.
But barreling along the DuPont Highway, few realize their tires are spinning down one of the country's oldest and most significant highways.
Delawareans Michael Hahn and William Francis explore the unique road’s history in pictorial detail in their new book, “The DuPont Highway.”
The DuPont Highway was the first dual highway in the nation – that is, a highway with two separate lanes divided by a grassy median, said Hahn.
Now a standard practice in highway construction, the idea was novel when Thomas Coleman Du Pont dreamed it up, he said. Du Pont, a Kentuckian trained as a civil engineer, became determined to build a road connecting Wilmington with Selbyville just to prove it could be done.
He also had an ulterior motive, Hahn said. Du Pont was an automobile-lover in a time when the only roads were poorly maintained and built with dirt, making them completely useless in the rain.
There was no national or state highway department in the early 1900s, so Du Pont formed a company and undertook the project through the private sector, Hahn said. His vision was a 300-foot corridor with adjacent roads, bike lanes, light rail lines, carriage lanes and tree lines. He started buying land to make that dream a reality in 1916, but it didn't evolve that way.
Farmers challenged the condemnation process, and it got expensive, Hahn explained. Without eminent domain, Du Pont ended up paying four times what some pieces of land were worth.
After a year, Du Pont had completed $4 million of road in 9-foot-wide sections between Selbyville and Milford, said Hahn.
Out of money, he appealed to the Delaware General Assembly to create a highway department and finish his road, Hahn said, and in 1917, that’s exactly what happened.
The Delaware highway department, the precursor to DelDOT, eventually connected the road to Dover and south Wilmington, near the present-day Rt. 13/40 split, Hahn said.
Though there were probably only a few thousand cars registered in Delaware at the time, the road had huge implications for downstate chicken farmers who could now ship products north instead of relying on the monopolizing railroads, said Hahn.
Before Rt. 1 was finished in 1995, The DuPont Highway was the primary connection between upstate and downstate Delaware, he said.
Ironically, many people today see DuPont’s 97-year-old vision for a 300-foot transportation corridor as a progressive idea that could alleviate a lot of congestion, Hahn said.
The DuPont Highway, affectionately called Delaware’s Mother Road, is much more than a highway, Hahn said, it’s an example of what can happen when technology and ingenuity come together.
“I think the book is valuable because it documents Delaware’s early transportation history in an illustration book which folks can understand and marvel at the changes of technology and landscape,” Hahn said.
The book is available at Borders, Ninth Street Books in Wilmington, the Delaware Made General Store in Dover, Happy Harry's stores across the state and online at Amazon.com or arcadiapublishing.com for #21.99.