NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES NOMINATION
FOR NEW CASTLE ICE PIERS (1982)
This group of seven stone piers, raised to low water on wooden cribs and
arranged in an elliptical pattern around a wharf, is located near the west
shore of the Delaware River adjacent to the town of New Castle, Delaware.
The piers were constructed between the years 1803 and 1882. Each consists
of an outer shell of finished granite blocks with an interior core of
The northern most of the piers (Pier A on the enclosed sketch map), is just
offshore at the foot of Harmony Street. Constructed in 1803, it is
rectangular in shape and raises four courses above its wooden crib. Each
outer course measures twenty-four to twenty-five inches in height and is
composed of stone blocks laid in Flemish bond with a pecked finish. Though
they are generally rectangular in shape, the dimensions, except for height,
vary considerably from stone to stone. This pier, like those further
downstream, has battered walls; it is unique in that its corners are
rounded. Top course features include three cylindrical mooring posts
arranged in single file along the western side --some sixty-five inches
tall, with domical upper surfaces --- and one inch thick iron strap ties,
which replace original one-inch round ties.
Pier B is approximately 225 feet to the east. Erected in 1874, this pier is
hexagonal in shape and rises six courses above low water. Its walls of
smooth finish ashlar are laid in Flemish bond and are battered.
Accessibility is enhanced by two iron ladders set into the masonry surface.
Both of these are located on the short walls facing harmony street, and are
composed of nine round iron bars between thick iron upright plates. Wrought
iron ties on the outside stones and two octagonal mooring posts,
terminating in eight-facet points and set along the long axis of the pier,
complete the finish of the top course. There has been some loss of stone
along the eastern side of this pier.
Approximately 225 feet downriver is a hexagonal pier (Pier "C") constructed
in 1879. Laid in Flemish bond rising five courses above a wooden crib, the
granite blocks of the outer wall are dressed with a pecked finish
surrounded by a smooth margin. This battered pier features two recessed
iron ladders; one is on the northeast-facing short side, and the other is
on the southeast facing short side. Finishing the top course are four
cylindrical mooring posts with domical tops, and wrought iron ties for the
outer stones. Some loss of stone has occurred on the western side of this
structure, and stones on the downriver point are dislodged.
At the foot of the town wharf and approximately 400 feet directly south is
another, almost identical, hexagonal pier (pier "D"), dating 1882. Similar
construction details are: Flemish bond masonry with pecked finish and
smooth outer margins, recessed ladders (now missing), and four cylindrical
mooring posts with domical upper surface. Contrasting features are the six
courses above low water. Some stones are missing or loosened on the
downriver point and a concrete patch has been applied.
A fourth hexagonal pier (pier "E") is again similar and close in date
(1875). Significant features are five stone courses laid in Flemish bond
masonry with pecked finish and smooth margins; four cylindrical mooring
posts with domical upper surfaces; butterfly headers; and two recessed iron
Immediately north of pier "E" is pier "I", a rectangular pier erected in
1854. The battered walls rise only three courses above a wooden crib, and
are laid in Flemish bond with pecked finish. Features of the top course
include four octagonal mooring posts with eight-facet pointed tops and
key-stone shaped headers. Significant deterioration includes the loss or
displacement of stone, particularly on the south and west sides, resulting
in the upheaval of all four mooring posts and disruption of the rest of the
top course. At low tide, much of the cribbage is exposed, encouraging
further deterioration but allowing examination of this supporting network.
Revealed are the large, hand wrought metal spikes used to bind the wooden
substructure. Today, this structure forms the western terminus of New
Castle's wooden pedestrian pier.
North of the present day wharf, at the foot of Alexander's Alley, is
another battered rectangular pier (pier "G"), dated 1803 and now at the
river's edge due to movement of the channel. Slightly larger than companion
1803 pier "A" to the north, this pier rises five courses in a running
bond above its wooden crib. The top course has been removed and much of the
rubble fill, along with some of the stone coping, has been scattered about
the site. The result is a cavity filled with vegetation. Nevertheless,
elements of the top course, including two cylindrical mooring posts with
domical upper surfaces, have survived. Also intact are the outer walls with
metal ties binding the top course. Two mooring posts are arranged along the
eastern side and a third, octagonal with rounded upper surface, is set in
the northeast corner.
The remains of several dismantled or more seriously deteriorated piers,
including one which has been incorporated into the modern wharf, are not
included in this nomination.
Anachronistic in an age of steel-hulled vessels, the New Castle ice breaker
piers are relics of a time when violent storms and running ice were
constant threats to shipping and navigation on the Delaware River. They are
significant to the engineering, navigation, and transportation history of
Delaware for being among the earliest and most important harbor improvement
projects undertaken on the Delaware River.
When these piers were erected, ships were wooden-hulled and propelled by
wind. Prior to the creation of a proper channel, large vessels under sail
required certain conditions, including high tidal water, to run up to
Philadelphia from the bay. In winter, large running ice flows could sweep
off course and even destroy a wooden-hulled vessel. The ice piers, which
were essentially small artificial offshore islands, provided a safe harbor
for navigation and shipping during violent weather and especially during
the harsh winter months. New Castle was not the only harbor of refuge on
the Delaware - there are ice piers upriver at Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania --
but those at New Castle are the oldest, and are unique in Delaware.
By the late 18th century, traffic on the Delaware was heavy, and New Castle
was strategically situated to provide supplies for vessels bound for
foreign ports out of Philadelphia. As early as 1786, the idea of a free
port at New Castle was advanced, recognizing the town as "healthy,
pleasantly situated, having extensive back country, fine harbor, deep
water, good anchoring ground and navigable almost all year long". At the
same time, piers were seen as an essential harbor improvement.
While plans to establish New Castle as a free port never materialized,
those for the creation of a ice harbor did. In 1774, the legislature passed
"An Act to enable the persons therein named to raise a sum not exceeding
Twelve Thousand Dollars, by a lottery, for the purpose of erecting piers in
the harbor of the Town of New Castle." The act allowed for the erection of
two or more piers, and appointed John Stockton, William Lees, James Riddle,
Kensey Johns, Issac Grantham, Archibald Alexander, and George Reed, Jr. as
managers. In its preamble, the Act states that the citizens of New Castle
intend to erect piers "for the security of shipping; which will have a
beneficial tendency in promoting the commercial and agricultural interests
of this State..." Sufficient revenue was realized on September 25, 1795, as
indicated in this note in the October 2, 1795, issue of the Philadelphia
"On Saturday the 26th ult. the Artificers employed in erecting the Piers at
New Castle, proceeded, with ANTRIM CONNDROE, the contractor, and a
Committee of the Managers of the Pier Lottery, and sunk the first Pier,
fifty feet in length and thirty in breadth, in the depth of water of twenty
feet, at low water. Every thing was conducted with the greatest regularity
and order, and no misfortune or accident damped their spirits, or retarded
the work. It is intended to complete a Second Pier this season, which will
afford a temporary and tolerable secure harbour for vessels in time of
Neither effort was entirely satisfactory, as within five years Kensey
Johns, the Treasurer of the New Castle Pier Lottery, entered into a
contract with local builders to repair the pier off Delaware Street, as
well as a second pier off Harmony Street.
On December 31, 1801, the managers adopted a resolution providing for
repairs to existing piers and the construction of a third off Alexander's
Alley. This resolution is particularly significant, since the original
piers have disappeared with the extension of the wharves, leaving the pier
off Alexander's Alley as the only extant pier built as a result of the
On April 6, 1802, as Act of Congress appropriated $30,000 for the erection
of piers in the Delaware River, provided the sites were ceded to the
federal government. On January 1, 1803, the Delaware Legislature enacted
legislation "ceding to the United States of America, the sites of piers,
and piers in the river Delaware off the Town of New Castle, and
jurisdiction in, and over the same." It is known from the 1804 survey map
of Benjamin Henry Latrobe that there were four piers in the harbor
designated the "U.S. Piers."
The New Castle ice piers, then, appear to be the first federallysupported,
non-military improvements undertaken on the Delaware.
In 1827, Major Samuel Babcock supervised the construction of timber piers,
joining two of the piers to the wharves and filling up two sluiceways. The
result was a harbor filled with mud. By 1835, Major Delafield began
construction of two hexagonal piers by razing two of the original
rectangular piers to low water and rebuilding them with stone
superstructures. This allowed removal of the timber connections. One of
Major Delafield's two piers was completed in 1837; the other was never
A plan of the harbor dating 1854 and signed by Major John Sanders, the
supervising engineer at Fort Delaware, proposed construction of three
additional piers. The plan indicates the pier completed in 1854, upon which
the town has since constructed a wooden pedestrian walkway.
Between 1826 and 1838, appropriations for harbor repair and construction of
new ice piers were approved almost annually by Congress. Eleven different
appropriations after 1852 totaled $148,000. Construction of the final pier
was proposed in 1879. The last appropriation in 1890 provided for dredging
and repair of the piers; there would be no further appropriations for the
construction of ice piers at New Castle.