Due west of Coastal Delaware about halfway between the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic, Seaford is located on beautiful Nanticoke River. In addition to being noted for its still-strong Nanticoke Indian heritage, it has also stood out as a nineteenth century steamboat hub, a fledgling and successful railroad center and “The Nylon Capital of the World.”
It was also a site of the true tale of Harriet Tubman, who as a freed, escaped slave herself helped thousands of Black captives achieve freedom on the Underground Railroad. In Seaford, Tubman successfully arranged the particularly dangerous escape of “Tilly,”an escaped slave who sought freedom and a life in Canada with her beloved fiancé.
That’s quite a variety of distinctions for what was once a small but prosperous town.
The Seaford Historical Society, established in 1972 celebrates the river town’s vibrant heritage. Now housed in the Ross Mansion, home of former Delaware governor William Henry Harrison Ross (1851 – 1855), the historical society also maintains the Seaford Museum, filled with artifacts and historical documents, as well as the Ross Station Event Center, a venue on the former Ross property used for weddings and other occasions.
Former Governor Ross’s influence on the community of Seaford remains profound. He is credited with revolutionizing commercial and passenger rail to the Delmarva Peninsula. With direct service to Baltimore and Philadelphia hubs, rural farmers experienced a revolution in transporting their crops, trading traditional grains and feed for more lucrative vegetables and fruits from Southern Delaware’s fertile soil.
While steamboats were still standard river-worthy craft, Seaford was also a destination for many tourists. From the Nanticoke River’s mouth at the Chesapeake Bay, steamers would venture into Seaford for a stay, or even to further their journeys north by railway.
Interestingly, Governor Ross, who was a slaveholder (the slave quarters on the historical society’s acreage has been renovated to resemble what a period lodging might be) became a polarizing political and society lightning rod. While Delaware sided with the Union during the Civil War, Ross denounced the state’s anti-slavery sympathies and sided with the leanings of Maryland, at the time caught between both sides.
Ross eventually conceded and fled to England.
In true and documented accounts, Seaford meanwhile became part of the Underground Railroad, the vast network of abolitionists and former slaves advocating for the freedom awaiting them in the north. It was in Seaford that Harriet Tubman (by then a free Black woman by virtue of arriving in Philadelphia with the help of abolitionist Quakers) helped transport “Tilly” to pursue her fiancé and freedom. Posing as “Laura” and in possession of a real passport required by Blacks then, Tubman courageously guided Tilly, her “niece” through Seaford where ironically Tilly boarded a train to freedom in Philadelphia.
Because of Seaford’s strategic location and reliable workforce, DuPont corporation chose it in 1939 as headquarters for its pioneering production of Nylon. Seaford quickly became known as the “Nylon Capital of the World.” It still has that motto on its city flag despite the factories’ sad demise 30 or so years later.
The Seaford Historical Society would rather focus on the more charming and legendary history of this small town that has evolved into a mixture of commerce and recreation. Although the steamboats are long gone, the Nanticoke River, where it converges with Clear Brook and Williams Pond is wide enough for recreational boating and commercial fishing.
The Seaford Historical Society has long been supported by the descendants of Governor Ross. His great grandson, Ross Claiborne provided a generous matching grant in 2016 to purchase the former Seaford Post Office, now the home of the Seaford Museum.
Should your travels take you in its vicinity, the historic town of Seaford, just blocks west of US Route 13 awaits to share its distinct history, a mixture of opulence, entrepreneurship, and controversy. Now through January 14, the society hosts a large and very popular holiday O-gauge train display surrounded by an elaborate village scene with interactive light switches the grandkids will definitely enjoy.
For more information, contact Seaford Historical Society.