Wilmington’s newly rededicated Joseph R. Biden Jr. Railroad Station finished a major restoration in the spring of 2011. One of Amtrak’s busiest stations, the Wilmington station was completed on June 29, 1908, and has remained in continual use. Wilmington is also served by SEPTA commuter trains and Delaware Transit Corporation (DART First State) buses.
In the first decade of the 20th century the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) required a regional headquarters for its operations between Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. They chose to build on the bustling Christina River waterfront beside the recently-finished Brandywine viaduct, which was built to eliminate rail grade crossings. The PRR’s director, A.J. Cassatt (brother of Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt), knew architect Allen Evans and his senior partner, the renowned Frank H. Furness, and so naturally called upon Furness and Evans to replace the 25-year-old facility that had been built for a PRR subsidiary (the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore), as well as design the neighboring office building.
Furness had built a smaller station for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, a few blocks to the west on Water Street in 1887. In 1903, that smaller station was converted to freight service. In 1905 the PRR opened what is today called the Pennsylvania Building as office space. This became the PRR management center for its many local operations, machine shops, maintenance and repair activities and more.
The station presented more of a challenge. It was required to stand directly beside the offices, squeezed into a fairly narrow space for a formal city station. Other architects might have tried to isolate the passengers from the noise and fumes of the railroad, but Furness, who was known for his advanced use of materials and the forcefulness of his architectural statements, chose to have the train effectively drive right through the second floor of the station. Even the ceiling of the ground-floor concourse showed exposed steel beams, the many extra rivets studding them providing a decorative if industrial design element.
The platforms and men’s and women’s waiting rooms were reached by stairs to the second floor, with room for a ticketing and retail concourse underneath the tracks, indoors on street level. This unconventional arrangement, where the trains thundered overhead as they arrived and departed, was part of Furness’ celebration of the power of the locomotives, and of the industrial and modern America of that day.
The Wilmington station, the last railroad station that Furness designed, presents a compact, Romanesque face to the world. About 160 by 200 feet in footprint, the main floor, slightly above street level, provides entrances onto the concourse with its ticketing, baggage office, restrooms, and news and coffee stands. The second floor is divided by the tracks into two virtually separate buildings. The larger south building contains offices and connects at the second floor to the old PRR office building by its side. The north structure, beside Front Street, contains a small waiting room and the clock tower at the corner of Front and French Streets. Both parts are steel-framed with walls of brick, brownstone, and terra cotta.
The north portion is the more decorated of the two, and rises two stories with a hipped roof, bracketed cornice and dentils over a plain frieze. The four-faced rectangular clock tower, rising an extra story above the main roof, is decorated with stone and terra cotta work that is repeated in plainer form throughout the station, and capped with a pyramidal roof. The south side possesses a similar hipped roof. Roman arches repeat above the top story windows, connected by a belt course, with round medallions between the arches.
Altogether, the Wilmington station cost the PRR $300,000 to complete, and earned Furness one of his largest commissions, $11,000. This station, out of the approximately 180 that Furness designed, is one of the 18 surviving today. In his 45-year career, Furness designed more than 600 buildings, including banks, offices buildings, churches, synagogues and numerous residential mansions in Philadelphia and its suburbs. One of the most respected and highly-paid architects of his era, Furness founded the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. A Civil War veteran, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry at the Battle of Trevilian Station, Va. Furness is ranked with his contemporaries John Root, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright as a designer and innovator.
The Wilmington station was added to the National Register of Historic Places on July 6, 1976, in recognition of its cultural value. The Wilmington station was in great need of repair, and Amtrak completed a year-long $10.4 million renovation in 1983. The waiting room was moved down to the main floor and many long-vanished details, such as the glass-and-metal canopy surrounding the entrances, were reproduced and installed. This restoration coincided with the revitalization of the Christina River waterfront, which included significant private and public investment such as the restoration of the Pennsylvania Building and the B&O station for commercial purposes.
Increasing volumes of Amtrak and commuter rail passengers prompted Amtrak and Vice President Joseph Biden’s 2009 announcement of a 20-month restoration project made possible in large part by a $20 million infusion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Work began on the brick and decorative terra cotta exterior and replacement and restoration of windows and doors. Many of the renovations were dedicated to improving accessibility, repairing and restoring platforms and their canopies, and installing a state-of-the-art waterproofing system on the track beds over the station concourse. Six bridges over local streets were also painted.
In December of 2010 work moved inside, and passengers took shelter temporarily in a modular waiting room on the northeast side of the station. The station interior saw complete remodeling, including restoration of the Grand Staircase, new restrooms, new ticketing facilities, and the addition of contemporary finishes including lighting, a semi-circular Amtrak ticketing counter and decorative terrazzo floors in the concourse. Fairly little that was historic had survived in that space, and it was revised completely to provide better passenger information and facilities while protecting the historic parts that did remain—such as the exposed but repainted overhead beams. Necessary communications, mechanical and safety systems were upgraded, and free Wi-Fi was installed for passenger use.
Funding for the renovation project was also provided by Amtrak ($5.7 million), the Delaware Department of Transportation ($2 million), and the SAFETEA-LU Transportation bill and other appropriations ($10 million) all supported by the Biden-Carper-Castle Delaware Congressional Delegation.
For more than a decade, the Friends of the Furness Railroad District have promoted the preservation of the Wilmington station, former B&O depot and other Riverfront-area buildings designed by Frank Furness. Through an informational display located in the Amtrak waiting room and other public outreach such as lectures, the group works to promote the city’s rich railroad heritage.
Wilmington began at the confluence of the Christina River and Brandywine Creek and now extends to ports on the tidal estuary of the Delaware River. In the spring of 1638, Swedish settlers arrived via the Kalmar Nyckel and Vogel Grip, under the leadership of Peter Minuit, and became the first permanent European settlement in the area. The region had been explored briefly by Spanish, Portuguese, English and Dutch explorers over the previous decades; but the Swedes founded Fort Christina—a park commemorates the spot—not far from today’s Christina River waterfront and the Wilmington station.
The colony was overtaken by Peter Stuyvesant’s Dutch fleet from New Amsterdam (New York) in 1655; and in turn granted to William Penn in 1682. By 1776, Delaware declared itself free from the British Empire and as well as establishing a government independent of Pennsylvania’s. Delaware is today remembered as the First State.
The 1780s and 1790s saw paper and cotton mills join the Brandywine’s flour mills. In 1802, French Huguenot immigrant Eleuth du Pont de Nemours settled after purchasing a large property along the Brandywine and establishing a black powder manufacturing facility. Du Pont’s factories supplied gun and blasting powder until 1921. From these mills sprang the modern chemical industry, which is still headquartered there with the presence of giants such as DuPont, Hercules, Inc. and ICI Americas.
With the advent of the railroads in the 1830s, the Wilmington area became a major producer of passenger rail cars. There were no fewer than four such plants in the city in 1905. Amtrak continues this tradition with a number of facilities in the Wilmington area the serve the entire Northeast Corridor. Electric locomotives are maintained, repaired and overhauled at the Wilmington Shops to the northeast of the city center, while Amfleet cars are taken care of at the nearby Bear Maintenance Facility.
Within walking distance of the station is the Amtrak Consolidated National Operations Center (CNOC), a high-tech facility from which Amtrak national operations are controlled. In April 2012, the Centralized Electrification and Traffic Control center moved from Philadelphia to CNOC. The Amtrak High-Speed Rail Training Facility, also in Wilmington, is where engineers, conductors and onboard staff are trained for Acela service. This facility, which opened in 1999, houses a full-scale motion simulator that duplicates the experience of operating Acela trains from inside the cab, an on-board service-training lab complete with seats, tables and food preparation areas, and nine classrooms. CSX and Norfolk Southern also serve Wilmington today.
Early in the 20th century, the business-friendly climate in Delaware began to encourage companies to incorporate in Delaware. Today, the majority of Fortune 500 corporations are incorporated here. In the 1980s credit card banks and financial institutions also moved to Wilmington, and it became a major international electronic banking center.