Route 47, commonly known as Delsea Drive by local residents, has been a well-known pathway to the shore no matter what name we choose to call it. But the stretch from Malaga to Millville once went by the name of Malaga Road, whose history over the years has become steeped in more than a bit of myth and misunderstanding.
Sources proclaim that Malaga Road is a former Native American trail adapted and modernized by non-indigenous settlers. And it has become very easy to visualize the 19th century version of the roadway as largely a two-lane highway in each direction. Neither of these notions, however, is correct.
A more accurate portrait of the road’s early years can be found in the pages of the Vineland Historical Magazine from 1920 where Wilson J. Purvis’ series “One Hundred Years of History of the Old Malaga Road” combines the author’s research with his first-hand account of the sights he beheld when he began traveling it in 1854.
Purvis lays to rest the belief that Malaga Road, which he tells us was surveyed in 1814, is simply an update of a Native American trail. He explains that Malaga Road was created slightly over a half-mile from the trail and that “the new road entered the old [trail] at, or near, Franklinville.”
Purvis notes that the new road was able to “take advantage of the high ground and the gravel found in the soil, which makes a natural roadway.” The result was “more room” and a way to avoid the streams that dotted the path of the Indian trail.
Interestingly, Purvis proposes that a local business, Mollago Mills, is what provided “the name from which Malaga is derived,” with the road christened after the town. He also offers an acquaintance’s theory that the community and roadway were named after “the British General Malage who marched his troops down the road and camped at the site of what is now the town of Malaga.” However, Henry Gannett’s 1905 The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States asserts that the town is named after Malaga, Spain.
Purvis recounts his early experiences riding on the new roadway in a stagecoach with his father. He describes “the long line of log and lumber teams that filled the road, sometimes a dozen of them together, with the drivers of the big logs cracking their whips and calling to their horses and oxen, a sight long to be remembered by a boy of eight or nine years.”
It may be somewhat surprising for modern readers to learn that Malaga Road contained three lanes, each serving a different purpose. “In the road were three tracks,” Purvis explains, “which accommodated the travel going and coming right and left, while the middle way by common consent left the horseback riders, the stage and light gigs.”
And then there were the sides of the road, which Purvis reports, “were used by the many pedestrians, for the people walked in those days, and there was much shouting, laughing and chaffing among the travelers.”
Recalling what he refers to as “market days” on which farmers transported their produce to Philadelphia, where they would sell it at public markets, Purvis describes the scenes on the road as “a most lively sight, for then the farmers’ wives and daughters accompanied them and were constantly greeting one another. In those days, everyone seemed to be acquainted…”
Purvis writes that it was possible to witness in the course of a day “hundreds of people coming and going…and at least a hundred teams” traveling on Malaga Road in the mid-19th century. We can’t say that traffic has decreased over time, but when you next find yourself on Delsea Drive, try to imagine what it once looked like.