The Wilmington Trail Club started out as a small group of young and mostly single people (until the first of what was to be many Trail Club marriages took place), many of whom were newcomers to Delaware. Almost all lived within the city of Wilmington as there were no suburban developments in those days. The city was subject to “blue laws” at the time so shops and restaurants were closed on Sundays and there were few opportunities for weekend recreation or social activities for young people often living far from their home towns. The Trail Club filled this need.
There was one hike a week, on Saturday or Sunday, everyone knew everyone else and attended regularly, making it possible for buses to be chartered for “away” hikes. The scope of social activities other than hikes was broader than today owing to the group being relatively small and close knit. Being akin to a family, the club kept detailed records for the first few years including an annual scrapbook containing descriptive and humorous articles written by members summarizing the events of the year, and also a log book of photos and newspaper articles. All of these are still preserved in our club archives.
So, how did the Wilmington Trail Club come into being? Ted Darling, a hiking enthusiast newly arrived to work for DuPont, proposed the idea of a club to a group of fellow employees in early 1939. The response was positive, with the suggestion that a women’s group should be approached to ensure that participation was mixed (these were young single males, remember!) and that the club should have an official sponsoring organization. Ted approached Phil Ahrens, program director for the YMCA, and they agreed the club would be sponsored as a function of the YMCA program. The local branch of the AAUW was invited, to ensure female participation. Letters were mailed to 76 people inviting them to a preliminary meeting held on April 4th. 25 people attended, voted to organize, and the Trail Club was born.
Within a year of its founding in 1939, WTC affiliated with the Wilmington Ski Club. While the activities appear to have had a downhill focus, some pictures in the 1950 Yearbook show X-C skiing at Split Rock in the Poconos. The affiliation lasted into the 1950s, and the separation led to a focus on X-C, a type of skiing that is more consistent with hiking. By the early 1970s regular weekend trips that focused on X-C with some snowshoeing were being scheduled in north central Pennsylvania with a few excursions to western Maryland, and one to the Catskill Mountains of New York. Also in the nineties, week-long trips to Lake Placid, NY, and Val David, Canada, became regular features.
For the first hike, on April 8th 1939, participants were invited to meet in the rose garden near the Van Buren St Bridge. They hiked along the Brandywine and through Alapocas Woods to an outdoor fireplace near Rockwood Tower, where they were met by the Superintendent of Parks and his wife who provided coffee, hot dogs and doughnuts. In 2014, 75th anniversary celebrations included a re-creation of the first hike with participants in period dress; also re-creations of the first recorded bike ride that started out from Rockford Park, and the first paddling trip on Rancocas river.
Early in 1942 discussion began regarding the securing of a cabin for Trail Club use, but it was to be seven more years before this became a reality. In 1949 Woodlawn Trustees offered use of an existing cabin at Peter’s Rock and a decision was made to rent it as a base for weekend activities and trips along the Brandywine. Work quickly commenced on improvements – the addition of an outdoor grill, a casement window, an entrance platform, a spring box and pump to supply water, a privy, a fence to keep the cows out, and an adjacent volleyball court! The interior was cleaned and painted and the cabin was then ready for use by club members and their guests. However the initial enthusiasm quickly passed. A note in the Council minutes of October 1950 mentions a need to promote interest in more frequent use of the cabin, by means of scheduled events such as picnics. By 1953 maintenance work and costs had become problematic, and by 1956 lack of use and increased vandalism prompted the council to terminate the lease. Sometime later the cabin burned down but the chimney can still be seen among undergrowth on the bluff overlooking Peter’s Rock parking lot.