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The Vital Role of the Delaware River in Food Production — Then and Now

Thompson-Neely Grist Mill at Washington Crossing Historic ParkThompson-Neely Grist Mill at Washington Crossing Historic Park

Most of our pantries contain a five-pound bag of flour purchased from the grocery store. Although people today can purchase flour ground at the Thompson-Neely Grist Mill located within Washington Crossing Historic Park in Washington Crossing, Pa., locally ground flour is fairly rare in the twenty-first century.

Not so for those alive during the American Revolution. From a family’s kitchen table to Washington’s army, grain products – and the mills that made them, often powered by local waterways, including those in the Delaware River Basin – played an essential role in colonial life.

Flour power

It’s hard to overstate the importance of flour and cornmeal in the 1770s. Used for breads, biscuits and pies, flour was traded between neighbors for other goods and sold at local markets. Most mill owners in Bucks County, Pa. sold to the market in Philadelphia for a significant profit. The county’s close proximity to Philadelphia’s port on the Delaware River meant that millers could ship their product there within a day. From there, it went up and down the east coast and much farther, to markets in southern Europe and the West Indies.

While people around the world were enjoying goods made from Pennsylvania grain, fresh-baked bread would have been a treat for the Continental Army in 1776. While soldiers were supposed to receive a pound of flour as part of their daily rations, those rations were frequently lacking.

Thankfully, Bucks County mill owner Robert Thompson supported the revolution. In fact, he hosted Washington’s soldiers on his farmstead in December 1776 and likely helped feed the starving army with grain from his local mill, which was located on the Pidcock Creek, a Delaware River tributary.

For both the power to turn the water wheels milling grain to the waterways needed to ship flour, the Delaware River helped sustain both Washington’s soldiers and Bucks County residents in the early years of our nation’s founding.

Clean water = food

The Delaware River has been part of our region’s sustenance since the Lenni Lenape indigenous peoples inhabited the watershed. Today, the Delaware River provides drinking water for over 13 million people, including the inhabitants of Philadelphia, Trenton and New York City. While people argue that the tap water in New York is part of the reason NYC is known for the nation’s best bagels, we know that high-quality tap and drinking water is crucial to food production, crop irrigation and even brewing beer.

According to Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the river’s watershed helps sustain agricultural practices such as dairy farming, fruit orchards and the raising of livestock.

The preservation of water quality and the sustainability of the Delaware River may not have been a focus for Washington’s army, but it is for many of us in 2022. Washington Crossing Historic Park has embraced this local resource and worked to educate the public about its role over the centuries. To that end and in partnership with DCNR, Friends of Washington Crossing Park completed the restoration of the Thompson-Neely Grist Mill in 2018. Guests of the park can enjoy tours of the mill between March and November, and perhaps pay homage to the contributions of the mighty Delaware River.

Visit for more information.

This article was written by the Friends of Washington Crossing Park.


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