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Wilmington was originally named Willingtown, for the early land developer Thomas Willing. When the area was later colonized by the British, the King of England changed the name to Wilmington, presumably to honor Spencer Compton, the Earl of Wilmington. Later, during the Revolution, the town’s milling industries, geography, key leaders, and other resources made it an extremely strategic location.
Wilmington became a city in 1832, and the economy flourished five years later, following the completion of the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad. The increased accessibility provided easy travel to most markets, and plentiful resources for growing industries.
Officially a Union State during the Civil War, Delaware was actually divided in its support of Confederate and Union soldiers, and Wilmington was at the center of the division. The city’s strong industrial base expanded to include production of ships, railroad cars, gunpowder, shoes, tents, uniforms, blankets, and other war-related items. During the mid-1800s, Wilmington produced more iron ships than the rest of the country combined. The resulting post-war prosperity led to the creation of many new businesses, and, ultimately, the beginning of suburban development to the west of the business center. The first suburban area was centered around today’s Delaware Avenue, and ornate mansions made it the city’s most coveted address.
Current-day visitors can still see the Old Swedes Church, which dates from 1698; Willingtown Square, where several of the city’s oldest residential structures have been relocated; and Rodney Square, which honors Delaware’s hero of the vote for independence.