April 22, 2020
By: William Koth, Interpretive Programs Manager at Trap Pond State Park
Visitors to Trap Pond State Park have long been enamored with the solitude and natural beauty of the area. Home to the northernmost naturally-occurring stand of Baldcypress trees in the United States, Trap Pond offers an ethereal swamp experience right here in Sussex County, Delaware. The pond, the surrounding recreation areas, and the park itself, however, actually emerged from some of America’s earliest industries.
Before European settlement in the area, the headwaters and swamps accumulated layers of “bog iron.” As groundwater flowed through the swamps and streams, plants and bacteria oxidized soluble iron compounds in the water. This oxidation left behind solid mineral deposits, high in iron. As larger numbers of settlers moved into this area in the mid-1700s, they found ideal conditions to build plants to process these deposits. The flowing streams provided power for the bellows, while the vast stands of timber provided all the charcoal needed to fuel the furnaces and forges. The dependent industries of logging and charcoal making grew alongside the iron industry up until the time of the American Revolution.
During the American Revolution, British blockades of the Chesapeake Bay effectively shut down the iron industry in the area. However, the lumbering, and to some extent, the charcoal industry, continued. As settlement increased, so did the demand for lumber. Small streams were dammed, both for powering sawmills and as transportation ponds for floating logs out of the swamps. Trap Pond was created in the late 1700s to transport logs. Shortly thereafter, a sawmill was put in place at Trap Pond. By the early 1800s, there were as many as 20 separate mill ponds in the area between Trap Pond and Broad Creek.
The Baldcypress swamps and stands of Atlantic White Cedar in the area provided specialized and sought-after lumber. Both trees provided lumber that was insect and rot-resistant, perfect for outdoor use. The wood was used for everything from water pipes to coffins. The large straight-trunked trees provided easily split wood that could be made into roofing and siding shingles. These were to become the main use of the lumber coming out of the area.
As the trees and forests were cut, agriculture slowly took over as the main industry in the area. Sawmills were gradually converted into grain and grist mills. Although we do not have specific dates, the mill at Trap Pond operated for a dozen or so years, grinding corn and wheat from local farms. Between 1856 and 1859, a railroad was completed from Wilmington to Laurel, the closest town to Trap Pond. With the arrival of the railroad, local farms started growing more perishable, yet profitable crops such as strawberries, watermelons, and peaches. Slowly, the local gristmills were abandoned. By the early 1900s, a large portion of the grain and grist dams had washed away.
From the original British land grants of the 18th century through the early 20th century, the surrounding area and eventually the pond itself was held in private ownership. While there is no doubt that recreation such as swimming and fishing took place, it was privately owned and not opened to public use.
The dam at Trap Pond lasted until 1931 before a large flood took it out and drained the pond. In 1936, the Rural Resettlement Administration, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, purchased the land surrounding Trap Pond. From 1936 through 1937, the Civilian Conservation Corps rebuilt the dam and created some of the first park infrastructures such as pavilions and cooking grills. The area was created as a federal recreation area under the National Soil and Water Conservation Service. In 1951, the Delaware State Parks Commission, now known as the Delaware Division of Parks and Recreation, took over management of the recreation area, creating Delaware’s first state park.
For nearly all living memory, Trap Pond has been a place for leisure, recreation, and enjoyment of natural beauty. However, it is important to remember, the area spent much more time being an industrial area than a protected resource. Through a series of fortuitous events and the dedication of a few conservation-minded individuals, Trap Pond has become the place we know and love, a place where future generations can take in relaxation, natural-resource based recreation, and an ethereal sense of solitude.