A stroll along the Huron River Greenway offers a path into a vanished past, a time when landlocked Milan was a major Great Lakes port shipping grain from much of Ohio.
And it provides an answer to the puzzled questions visitors ask when they browse the gift shop at the Milan Historical Museum.
"We get a lot of comments, 'Why does your gift shop have nautical things?'," said Ann Basilone-Jones, executive director of the museum.
The greenway, a park which stretches for nearly six miles north of Milan, is part of Erie MetroParks.
You don't have to be a history buff to enjoy its natural beauty. Running along the former tracks of the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway along the east bank of the Huron River, the Greenway offers hikers and bicyclers a look at the lush greenery and wildlife along the river.
A downloadable brochure at the park system's Web site, eriemetroparks.org, shows four locations where visitors can hop on the trail.
Perhaps the best place to get a glimpse of Milan's history is to begin the Greenway in Milan.
Take Ohio 113 into town from U.S. 250. From the village square, go north on Main Street to the entrance to the Huron River Greenway at the bottom of a hill.
After a brief walk on the trail, a visitor will see a historical marker with information on both sides. One side describes "The Port of Milan" and the grain exports once sent from the city, while the other describes the Milan Canal, which reached its peak in 1847.
On a recent summer day, Adriano Orrao, 69, was walking his dog, Max, along the path when he paused to read the marker. Orrao explained he was trying to help both his dog and himself lose weight by getting a bit of exercise.
"This is the first time I've been here," he said. "It's beautiful."
A little further along the path, another historical marker explains that a creek just beside the path was once part of the canal.
More information on the canal's early days is found next to the Edison Birthplace Museum, 9 Edison Drive in Milan. A historical marker close to the museum marks the location of the Milan Canal Basin at the end of the canal, where grain was loaded aboard ships after being stored in one of the town's 14 warehouses, and where 75 sailing vessels were launched after being built in Milan.
In a letter printed in this newspaper on Dec. 31, 1922, Thomas Edison recalled that boats were launched from a piece of land called The Hogsback. Edison wrote that what seemed to be the entire population of the town would show up to witness the launching of a new boat.
The canal, completed in 1839, was three miles long and allowed Milan to function as a Great Lakes port. Ships from Lake Erie would go up the Huron River to a location near Mason Road and then on the canal into Milan.
During Milan's heyday as a grain shipping port farmers from as far away as Columbus would bring wagonloads of grain to Milan to be loaded upon the boats, Basilone-Jones said.
"There would be lines six miles long waiting to load," she said.
Using the tall ships saved a step, because it meant the grain did not have to be loaded from a canal boat to a lake ship, said Dr. Charles Brausch, a Sandusky neurologist who has studied Ohio's canals.
But the town's booming days as a grain port, peaking in 1847, came to an end.
"And then the railroads came," Basilone-Jones explained.
Railroads offered a quicker, easier way for farmers to deliver their grain. They could go to the nearest railroad station, instead of having to make a long, overland trip to Milan.
"It was faster. You didn't have to worry about your crops going bad," Basilone-Jones said.
Milan's forefathers "felt the canal was going to serve them in good stead. They were not keen to get a railroad terminal," said Brausch, former president of the Canal Society of Ohio. When the railroads came north, they went past Milan to Sandusky, Brausch said.
As grain exporting declined, Milan continued as a shipbuilding port. There were 75 ships built in the Milan, with the last built in 1868. A flood in 1868 damaged the canal, ending Milan's port activity.
Milan's lake of rail activity in the early days doomed the town's prosperity, but also helped preserve the town, Basilone-Jones said.
"Progress never really came," she said. "The trains didn't come."
That left Milan looking much like it did in the 1860s and 1870s with tourists attracted to the charming town and its museums.
"A lot of the houses in the area are ship captain's houses. They are still standing," Basilone-Jones said.
The Milan Historical Museum recently reopened an exhibit devoted to Milan's port days. The exhibit includes a model of the Jason Parker, a schooner built in Milan in 1859.
"That's the one everyone really likes," Basilone-Jones said. "All the kids want to play with it."
What's what along the Greenway? See the ePaper for a map of the trail