Jim M. Kilvington
Newcastle & Frenchtown Railroad Right-of-Way
Lewis Shore Road, Elkton, Cecil County
The New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad originally crossed the Delmarva Peninsula from a wharf in New Castle to a wharf at Frenchtown on the Elk River in Maryland. Part of the original route, from the Delaware Railroad near Porter to New Castle, still is in operation as part of the Penn Central System. From Porter to Frenchtown, the right-of-way is abandoned for railroad purposes, although parts of it serve as county roads. Much of the abandoned right-of-way survives as a trace along field boundaries through second-growth woods. At Belltown Run, west of Delaware Route 401, a stone-arch bridge survives in good condition. Delaware Route 394, near the Maryland line, is built on part of the roadbed. At Frenchtown, the long curving roadbed to the Elk River survives as a county road; another portion of the roadbed east of Frenchtown is a private lane that connects with Route 213. The most evident surviving portions of the railroad are in the valleys of small streams, where earth-fill embankments still survive. the long causeway across the valley of Belltown Run is the largest of these. Like many early railroads, the New Castle and Frenchtown was built on 10" or 12" square stone sleepers that carried the strap-iron rails. This system proved unsatisfactory, and by the middle of the 19th century had been abandoned in favor of wooden ties. Stone sleepers from the New Castle and Frenchtown, salvaged by local residents, may be seen today in the foundations of buildings near the right-of-way.
As early as the mid 17th century, entrepreneurs were proposing canals, turnpikes, and other internal improvements to connect the Chesapeake and Delaware bays. A century and a half later, however, the route still involved poor roads, undependable packet connections, and long delays. Independent companies built canals, turnpikes, and railroads, helter-skelter, along the East Coast, first to connect major waterways, and finally to provide a single land transportation system. While the present coastwise transportation network was evolving, dozens of these companies enjoyed a brief prosperity, only to be superseded in a few years by newer and cheaper routes. The New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad was one of these ephemeral schemes. On February 8, 1832, the railroad opened for passenger service, using horse-drawn carriages because its temporary rails were too light for locomotives. By September 10, English-built steam locomotives were operating on an improved roadbed. The New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad was not only among the first railroads built in the U.S., but it was the first upon which steam power was applied for the transportation of passengers. In 1833 the railroad absorbed the Steam Navigation Company, which operated packet boats to the line's termini. A competing steam packet line, operating through the C&D Canal, forced the railroad to charge unreasonably low fares that weakened its financial structure. By 1834, however, the competition had been put out of business, and the railroad enjoyed a monopoly on the passenger-carrying trade that lasted until 1837, when a new railroad network between Philadelphia and Baltimore was completed. The New Castle and Frenchtown tried to compete with the new line until 1843, when it became a subsidiary of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad. A spur to Wilmington, chartered as the New Castle and Wilmington Railroad, was completed in 1852. In 1855 the Delaware Railroad built a connection with the New Castle and Frenchtown east of Glasgow. The line west of the junction was abandoned after service to the Frenchtown Wharf was discontinued.