Delaware: Eleutherian Mills Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This estate on the banks of the Brandywine River was the residence of Eleuthère Irénée Du Pont (1771-1834) and the site of his original black powder mills. Various grades of black powder–a mixture of sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal–were used as explosives in the construction of roads, canals, and railroads, and in mining, farming, and war.

Site Office

Hagley Museum and Library

P.O. Box 3630

Wilmington, DE 19807-0630

ph.: (302) 658-2400

Web site: www.hagley.lib.de.us/

Eleutherian Mills, located in the Brandywine woods, encompasses the site of an early, successful industry in the young American republic and illustrates the use of water power to drive machinery. The Du Pont family, owner of the black powder works, helped stimulate the development of Wilmington, Delaware, as an industrial, shipping, and financial hub.

The Black Powder Company

In 1800, Eleuthère Irénée Du Pont, his brother Victor, and his parents emigrated to the United States from France. An avid hunter, Irénée was dismayed at the high price and poor quality of gunpowder. Resolved to start a business, he returned to France to gain expertise in the making of gunpowder and to buy equipment and raise capital. He founded E. I. Du Pont de Nemours and Company in 1802. A student of the great chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier in the 1780’s, Irénée had learned the importance of quality control and took great pains to purify sulfur (imported from Italy) and saltpeter (imported from India).

Irénée built the mills along the Brandywine River where a drop of more than 120 feet in only five miles supplied excellent waterpower. He had the mills constructed with safety in mind: They had three thick stone walls, with a wooden roof sloping toward the wooden fourth wall that faced the river. In the inevitable explosions, the wooden structures gave way, minimizing danger to workers and other buildings.

The first shipments of gunpowder were made in 1803, and the company prospered, aided soon by demands for black powder during the War of 1812. Irénée reinvested his share of the profit, thus enabling the company to grow.

During the history of Du Pont black powder manufacture, 288 explosions resulting in 228 deaths were documented. Though not required to do so by law, the Du Ponts gave pensions to widows and housing to families of workers who were killed. Irénée immediately rebuilt after each explosion and consequently remained in debt his entire life.

E. I. Du Pont, Botanist

Though Irénée worked in his family’s printing firm in France, he listed his occupation as “botanist” in his emigration papers. His father–a Physiocrat and economist who believed that human well-being arose from the land–had taught him natural history on the family estate, Bois-des-Fossés. Irénée kept careful records of seeds that he brought to America and exchanged seeds with many people in France, including Joséphine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1802, he began an orchard with fruit trees brought from France. The next year, he built a comfortable house overlooking the mills and planned its gardens in great detail.

Irénée utilized trees grown on his property to make the charcoal necessary for the black powder, to provide timber for dams, and to construct buildings and even waterwheel shafts and buckets. He also grew crops and had a sizable flock of Merino sheep, which provided wool for his brother Victor’s woolen mill across the river.

Eleutherian Mills Today

The original sixty-five-acre site includes the house built by Irénée, a research library, and ruins of the black powder mills. After an explosion in the 1850’s, the house was substantially enlarged. An 1890 explosion destroyed the mills for the last time and caused great damage to the house. It remained uninhabited for two years and was then turned into a club for workers. During World War I, troops were stationed at the house to guard against sabotage of other Du Pont mills added along the Brandywine River during the nineteenth century. An explosion in 1921 destroyed these mills.

In 1921 a grandson of Irénée, Colonel Henry A. Du Pont (1838-1926), bought the property for his daughter Louise Du Pont Crowninshield (1877-1958) and her husband. They remodeled the house, restored the first floor to appear as she remembered it from her childhood, and added a Renaissance garden in the mill ruins. In 1954, she gave the property to the Hagley Foundation, founded in 1952 to celebrate 150 years of the Du Pont Company. Archaeological excavations of the front lawn enabled the restoration of Irénée’s original garden.

For Further Information
  • Chandler, Alfred D., Jr., and Stephen Salsbury. Pierre S. Du Pont and the Making of the Modern Corporation. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. A biography of Pierre S. Du Pont (1870-1954) detailing diversification of the Du Pont Company. Includes discussions of the gunpowder industry.
  • Du Pont de Nemours, E. I. Du Pont: The Autobiography of an American Enterprise. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952. An account of the Du Pont Company in the context of American history and industry. Profusely illustrated with drawings and photographs.
  • Jolly, Pierre. Apostle of Liberty and the Promised Land. Translated and annotated by Elise Du Pont Elrick, Du Pont de Nemours. Wilmington, Del.: Brandywine, 1977. A biography of Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours (1739-1817), Irénée’s father. Discusses the relationships of Pierre with notable French personages and includes details about Irénée and the founding of the Du Pont Company.
  • Wall, Joseph Frazier. Alfred I. du Pont: The Man and His Family. New York: Oxford University Press. 1990. Biography of Alfred I. Du Pont (1864-1935). Provides a history of his ancestors and their business endeavors.
  • Wilkinson, Norman B. E. I. Du Pont, Botaniste: The Beginning of a Tradition. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. Published for the Eleutherian Mills-Hagley Foundation, 1972. Focuses on the botanical interests of Irénée and the history of the gardens at his and other Du Pont estates.
  • Winkler, John. The Du Pont Dynasty. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1935. A history of the Du Pont family from their French origins to the early twentieth century.
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