The Army Corps of Engineers worked to maintain water access to communities located at the head of navigation of many Delaware waterways, beginning after the Civil War. That ongoing struggle, extending well into the 20th century, required a constant effort as the Corps mapped waterways, carried out dredging, removed shoals, straightened twisting courses, and built dikes, making the rivers navigable for sailing and steam vessels.
For places that had grown steadily because of the waterways, shoals and the silting of river beds were a problem, making access by larger vessels difficult, except on high tide. The agency’s centuries of labor generated a lot of helpful technical reports, many of them done by the engineers, and those old original records are often available to help understand the passage of centuries along a watercourse. As the Corps superintended work, the government employees produced pages of notes, sketches, hand-drawn maps, letters, official correspondence, and official documents. Many of these surviving manuscripts are stored safely away in the Philadelphia Branch of the National Archives.
Leipsic, one of those watermen’s villages, is north of Dover. “Delaware: A Guide to the First State” (1938) described it as a “little old village on the edge of the greatest tidal marsh area of Delaware – that of northeast Kent County. . . . Delaware Bay is only 7 miles away as the crow files but much farther as the creek goes twisting through the vast wet flats.”
A 1910 report added more details. Before the advent of the railroad the village had a large and flourishing commerce. The wharves and warehouses furnished evidence of the former trade, which was beginning to revive. It was 4-1/2 miles from the railroad at Cheswold on the Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania railroad. The population was about 350. The land around the community, all under a high state of cultivation, was some of the finest around.
There were two canning establishments at Leipsic with a combined output of 75,000 to 100,000 cases a season, and there was a creamery doing a thriving business, the 1910 report observed. Two general stores supplied the countryside, but aside from these industries and a few stores at Cheswold the locality was devoted to farming interests and the improvement of the river was desired for moving expeditiously the grain, perishable farm products, and such.
Three steamboats of 100 to 150 tons each were kept busy carrying tomatoes from Leipsic to Baltimore, in 1908 the report continued. One steamer of 120 tons traded regularly, though not upon a schedule between Leipsic and Delaware Bay and River ports; 11 schooners from 30 to 100 tons, and 6 power boats traded in the river. In addition a fleet of oyster boats worked the nearby beds in the Delaware making the river their home port.
The Leipsic River, rising in northern Kent County about eight miles northwest of Dover, was the waterway bringing commerce to the town. Flowing east past Leipsic, it enters the Delaware Bay approximately eight miles northeast of Dover. The mouth of the river is surrounded by extensive wetlands that are protected as part of Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. The tidal stream to the Delaware Bay travels some 12 miles from its mouth to the community from which it took its name.
A section of the map of the Leipsic Rivers from the Army Corps of Engineer’s Report. Map dated 1909 and published in report of 1910. Source: National Archives
It was a crooked meandering stream. But three cut-offs were made many years ago by a private navigation company, shortening the distance considerably, the Corps wrote in 1910. The course flowed through low-lying marshes whose level was slightly above the level of ordinary high water the entire distance below the village, except at one point, White Hall Landing, where the fast-land touches the river in a sandy bluff fringed with trees. In former years this landing was a great shipping point for peaches, but the business largely stopped with the disappearance of the peaches, although considerable trade was still being done in tomatoes and other farm products.
The river gradually increased from 200 feet abreast of the village to about 450 feet at the Delaware Bay. The prevailing depth was over 10 feet, with 18 and 20 feet depths of frequent occurrence. At only three places between the mouth and Leipsic were shoals found in 1910. These were hard gravel bars, widely separated with but only 6 feet depth of water upon them.
When the Corps first studied the River in 1884 a propeller steamboat of about 130 tons made three tips per week between Leipsic and Philadelphia, according to the Engineers. At the same time, two schooners of 75 tons burden made weekly trips to Philadelphia. An average of two transient vessels per month also called at the port during that period. Major exports from Leipsic during the late 19th century consisted of canned goods, corn, wheat, wood, hay, peaches, general farm produce, furs pelts, and sheep. Imports consisted of phosphate fertilizer, coal, lime, box shooks, and general merchandise. In the 1880s, the river channel between Leipsic and the Bay was no less than six feet deep at low tide so no federally sponsored improvements were recommended.
When the river was studied in 1908, it was noted that up to that time no U.S. government funds had been expended for navigation improvements. The only work accomplished had been the privately funded dredging undertaken in 1839, when three cut-offs channels had been excavated at sharp bends in the river. The Corps of Engineers undertook a major dredging project on the River in 1913. The work involved deepening the natural channel and straightening several stream meanders.
During the centuries the Leipsic River served as an important waterway in Central Delaware’s maritime commerce.