Written by Justin Zackal
New Wilmington has a way of greeting you. Its swath of lights appear above your dash like a welcome mat as you crest Route 208 from the east. Old Main tower guides you northbound down Route 158 as if it’s a lighthouse amidst a cascading countryside.
The road signs are formalities, an exchange of pleasantries. But imagine if you could talk back to the two cast-iron welcome signs, asking questions like, ‘How’d ya get that name?’, or ‘You aren’t really that old, are ya?’
The signs that declare “NAMED AFTER WILMINGTON-ENGLAND / FOUNDED 1797” are not exactly accurate, as debated by authors of The History of New Wilmington: The Story of a Small Town, a book written by a committee of local historians in 2003.
The first white settlers to inhabit the area were of Scotch-Irish descent, Presbyterians who fled Scotland for Ireland and eventually for Pennsylvania because the Scotch-English monarch tried to impose Catholic and Anglican structures and theology upon them. Furthermore, the man who first owned the land that is now New Wilmington fought in the Revolutionary War against Great Britain.
“Wilmington was, of course, the name of a city in England, and therein likes some irony. Did not the Scotch-Irish intensely dislike the English? Why select the name of an English city?,” wrote Delber L. McKee and the late H. Dewey DeWitt, both former Westminster College faculty members.
New Wilmington’s name is more likely linked to a neighboring community and a city in a neighboring state.
The Pennsylvania legislature passed an act in 1783 that provided Revolutionary War veterans the opportunity to purchase lands west of the Allegheny mountains and north of the Ohio River called “Donation Land.” The land that is now New Wilmington was part of Donation District #3.
In 1797, John and James Waugh, two war veterans from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, took possession of their grants in District #3, John with 425 acres and James with 400 acres to the west. John and his wife, Sarah, lived in a log house near the corner of present-day Bethel and Cowden Roads.
Not long after John died in 1814, his son, James Waugh Jr., purchased land from Sarah, the trustee of John’s estate, and from Hugh Means and Griffith Adams on “a high knot of ground on the second bottom of Little Neshannock.” This rectangular piece of land would become New Wilmington. In 1824, James and his sons laid out New Wilmington in hopes of profiting from his purchase and selling plots of land.
Therefore, 1797 is the year white settlers first built houses in the area. (James Hazlep is also on record as living in the area before the Waugh brothers.) However, what is known as New Wilmington was first platted in 1824. It wasn’t until 1863 that New Wilmington was incorporated as a borough.
WHY NEW WILMINGTON?
Around the same time that the Waugh brothers were claiming their donation lands, a civil engineer from Delaware was resurveying donations land nine miles south. John Carlyle Stewart and his relatives laid out a town at the confluence of the Shenango River and the Neshannock Creek. They named the 50 acres New Castle, after the town in Delaware where they previously lived.
It may not be a coincidence that Wilmington, Delaware, sits a few miles north of New Castle, Delaware (6 miles), just like New Wilmington and New Castle in Pennsylvania (9 miles).
“Perhaps he or another member of the Stewart party had a role in surveying New Wilmington and suggested the name,” wrote McKee and DeWitt. According to the New Wilmington history book, long-time resident Bill Campbell heard from his father that the village got its name because it was the same distance from New Castle as the two cities in Delaware.
One could make the argument that because Wilmington, Delaware, was named for the city in England that New Wilmington is also named for the English city, but that’s not the homage its founders intended.
WHO SIGNED OFF ON THIS?
There are two blue and gold cast-iron signs on the borough boundaries along Neshannock Avenue (Route 208 east near Dutch Isle) and on New Castle Street (Route 158 north near Overlook Nursing Home). These signs are an iconic piece of Pennsylvania history, commissioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Highways as part of the Keystone Markers program and the “good roads” movement. Thousands of the Keystone-shaped signs were first produced in the 1920s up until the mid-1940s, and only a few hundred remain.
The text on the signs were the product of a committee of Pennsylvania historians led by Henry Shoemake and Albert Cook Myers, chairman and secretary of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission. In spite of their efforts, there are a handful of signs with inaccuracies.
For example, the sign in Frankfort Springs, Beaver County, is spelled “Frankford Springs.” The sign in Tylersport in Montgomery County, which is no longer there, said “Named for President James Tyler” (his name was John). The town of Mt. Wolf in York County took down its sign when it was determined that it was named for George Wolf, but not colonial-era governor “Gov. George Wolf.”
PennDOT, successor of the Department of Highways, no longer claims responsibility for the upkeep of the markers, many of which were destroyed or stolen. Local civic groups have since maintained them in each community, and in 2010 the Keystone Marker Trust was established. Trust members, or “beloved gateway guardians,” helped restore more than 100 markers and install 25 replicas.
The original Keystone Markers were produced by one of two companies that are now out of business. The Carlisle Foundry, fittingly from the same hometown of the Waugh brothers, created the New Wilmington markers, which remain in relatively excellent condition.
It’s incredible to think that for nearly three quarters of a century visitors to New Wilmington have been greeted with signs of questionable accuracy. It’s easy to overlook the sign, literally in awe of the pastoral scenery and figuratively that the welcoming sentiment has stayed intact all these years.