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The Local History Behind the Delaware Breakwater


The Delaware Breakwater East End Lighthouse. (Photo by Bob Trapani)Beware of politicians with opinions about science. Regardless of the issue—global warming, depletion of fisheries, floodplains—influential people who want something to be true usually find proof that it is.

George Smith—an Upper Darby physician, politician, historian and co-founder of the Delaware County Institute of Science—was true to form. In 1837, after doubts about the quality of stone from a local quarry caused it to be dropped as a contractor for the immense Delaware Breakwater, Smith produced a “scientific” report that the stone was just fine.

“The rock from Delaware County is not liable to decomposition, and experience is decidedly in favor of its durability,” wrote Smith on behalf of a DCIS committee.

It worked. The quarry’s contract was restored. Jobs and profits were saved. Huzzah! Smith was a hero.

The problem? His science was bunk.

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Born in a house on Manoa Road, Smith was a studious boy. His father died when he was 2, but he was able to attend a boarding school in West Chester and, later, to enroll in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. Smith received his degree in 1826 and opened a medical office in Darby. But he practiced for only four years.

In 1829, he married fellow Quaker Mary Lewis, the only heir to her family’s 800-acre Collenbrook Farm. One of the largest properties in Delaware County, Collenbrook required full-time management, so Smith took over.

Smith was now a wealthy man—and wealthy men automatically have influence. He was elected to the state senate in 1831 with the apparent sole aim of helping establish public schools throughout the state. An 1834 law allowed counties to opt out, and many did.

By 1836, Smith was chair of the senate education committee. Under his leadership, the group proposed tweaking the 1834 law to give counties establishing public schools the option of voting every three years to discontinue them. With that escape hatch, more counties were willing to try the new system. Eventually, all of them established schools.

That done, Smith resigned from the senate. Back home, Delaware County appointed him its first superintendent of public schools. He also served as president of the Upper Darby school board for 25 years and as associate judge for most of 30.

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Smith was active in the Philadelphia and Delaware County medical societies, as well as many other civic organizations. In 1862, he published a history of Delaware County. One historian described Smith as “liberal in all things, and well versed in the natural sciences and general literature.”

So it would seem logical that he was one of the five leading men of the county who founded the DCIS in 1833. Modeling themselves after famous amateurs like Ben Franklin and John Bartram, DCIS members collected and shared botanical and geological specimens, and then wrote about their findings. Smith himself donated his extensive collection of dried native plants.

Meanwhile, around Delaware Bay, sailors had been begging for some sort of ship refuge since the early 19th century, if not before. The Delaware shore is mostly featureless, so commercial ships entering and leaving the bay had nowhere to hide from storms. According to the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, 193 vessels were driven ashore, blown out to sea, wrecked or damaged on the Delaware Capes between 1807 and 1826.

In 1825, John Quincy Adams came to the presidency on a platform of high tariffs and internal improvements. Adams favored roads, ports and canals, plus a national university and federal support for the arts and sciences. All this was bitterly opposed in the South, which wanted low taxes. Southern opposition eventually helped make Adams a one-term president. Still, among the improvements authorized in Adams’ first year was a stone breakwater just west of Cape Henlopen.

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Plans called for a 3,600-foot stone barrier running southeast to northwest, plus a shorter “ice breaker” facing north to deflect ice floating down the Delaware River. Work began in 1828 and continued through most of the 19th century. Initial construction, though, ended in 1839. By that time, 835,000 tons of stone had been deposited in the bay at a cost of $1.8 million. But the breakwater was shorter than planned because Congress cut its appropriations.

It was a colossal work for its time. The only similar projects were at Cherbourg, France, and Plymouth, England. All were built by dumping stone on the bottom until it rose above the water. The Delaware Breakwater is roughly 145 feet wide at its base and 20 feet wide above water.

“The objection [to the mound method] is the liability of the stone above low-water level to be displaced by the action of the sea,” wrote an Australian engineer in 1884. “This has, to some extent, been guarded against in the Plymouth breakwater by pitching the sea slope with large blocks of stone set in cement; at Cherbourg, by large concrete blocks; and at the Delaware River, by large blocks of stone.”

Stone came initially from quarries on both the Hudson and Delaware rivers. Since the Hudson quarries were farther away, they should’ve been at a competitive disadvantage. But collusion between sloop masters on the two rivers made transportation costs similar. In 1830, however, the Army Corps of Engineers figured out what was going on and decreed that all stone for the breakwater must thereafter come from the Delaware River quarries. Chief among these was Leiper at Springfield.

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The quarries had belonged to the Leiper family since 1780. In that year, Thomas Leiper, a Scottish immigrant who’d made money processing tobacco, bought them to supply stone for bridge and building construction. The quarries supplied granite for curb stones and buildings in Philadelphia and, later, on the Swarthmore College campus.

Leiper’s stone made him a rich man, and he was close to Thomas Jefferson. And, like Jefferson, Leiper used his money in innovative ways. In 1809, he built the first permanent railway in America—a pair of iron rails on wood ties that ran to a landing on Ridley Creek, with cars pulled by oxen. The railway was later replaced by a canal.

By the time the breakwater project got underway, Leiper was dead and the quarries were in the hands of his sons. Records of breakwater construction indicate deliveries from George, William and Samuel Leiper.

Collectively, the Leipers were the region’s primary source of stone, though they had competitors. Nonetheless, early in the breakwater project, the Leiper quarries were named the Corps’ sole stone provider. And while they subcontracted to others, the Leipers’ lead role was resented. In January 1832, competing quarry owners publicly called the Leiper monopoly “inconsistent with the rights of freemen.”

Specifically, quarry owners complained about the percentage of their profits that went to the Leipers: “They realize from our labor about $15,000, without leaving us one cent of profit and, in some instances, a sufficiency to meet the cost and expenses of quarrying.”

As a result, the Corps eventually changed its bidding process to permit smaller quarries to participate.

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Quarrying was a hardscrabble business—one disposed to direct tactics. About 1830, according to historian John H. Martin, quarry workers were tired of poling their stone-laden boats around a sharp bend in Ridley Creek. So they went out one night and dug a new channel across the neck of the bend. That shortened their route, but left the McIlvaine Quarry with no access to the creek, its only transportation outlet.

“Rough practical jokes were quite common in those days,” wrote Martin.

Sometime in late 1836, all of the Crum and Ridley creek quarries were suddenly informed that they’d been dropped from the project. Thereafter, only stone from a Delaware quarry would be accepted at the breakwater.

Soundings one spring had revealed that the top of the breakwater structure had sunk as much as 15 feet since work ended the previous year. The reason? Too much mica, claimed chief engineer Capt. Richard Delafield.

“The stone from Pennsylvania is composed of quarts, feldspar and mica in various proportions, but all containing a large quantity of mica, which renders it liable to chemical decomposition and the attrition of the waves,” he wrote.

Delaware stone, concluded Delafield, “is decidedly superior, consisting either of pure feldspar, or a very compact aggregation of quartz, feldspar and hornblende.”

This was not seen as good news in Delaware County. Regardless of the quality of the stone, money was at stake. The Leipers turned to Smith, who convened a DCIS committee. The group authorized Smith to investigate and write a report, which was released the following year.

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Smith didn’t dispute the existence of mica, a flat rock formed of many thin layers. Instead, he attacked the idea that mica was liable to chemical decomposition, noting that, in Siberia, large sheets of mica were used for very durable window panes. (Delafield probably meant “mechanical” decomposition, since mica can easily be broken apart with hand tools.)

Counterattacking, Smith then claimed that a bigger problem was feldspar in the Quarryville stone. “[Feldspar] seems to be slowly eaten away by the moisture and carbonic acid of the air,” he wrote, quoting a respected encyclopedia. “Some [feldspar] stone dikes are thus entirely decomposed to great depths from the surface.”

Delafield likely didn’t know what to say. He’d supervised the construction of military and harbor facilities up and down the East Coast. In western Pennsylvania, he’d ordered an iron bridge when the available stone wasn’t sufficiently strong to support an arch. He knew stone.

But Smith’s arguments sounded good in an era when science was new and few thought to challenge the learned gentlemen who practiced it. Smith used big words and charts. He quoted sources. But he was wrong about mica: Depending on the amount present, it does crumble. On the other hand, he was right about feldspar; over time, it degrades to clay.

“Smith was probably sincere,” says Al Palmer, current DCIS president. “But he wasn’t unbiased.”

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Any farmer who’d actually handled a chunk of mica should’ve known better. And the preface of Smith’s report makes plain its purpose to rescue “the most valuable mineral product of the county.”

The Leiper quarries were reinstated. Probably, Delafield used Leiper stone in the breakwater’s interior, then surrounded it with bounders from Delaware. The breakwater is still there today, so apparently the stone was good enough. The artificial harbor, however, is too small for modern commercial vessels and is now thoroughly silted up. The science on that was wrong, too.
Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.
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