This drawing was published in Henry Howe's Ohio Historical Collection and it was drawn from a north side of Milan. In the immediate foreground is Kneeland Townsend's distillery. Beyond it, situated between the old mill race body of water and the Huron River is Ebenezer Merry's second flour mill and the old woolen mill. To the extreme right, is the old covered bridge. In the center of the drawing is the canal basin with schooner ships sitting in the basin and lining the far edge of the basin are twelve of the old warehouses. The only remaining warehouse is on the far right of that row. The town of Milan is behind the basin on the top of the hill. We've colored the water blue to help the viewer separate the three bodies of water. 

Page Two - The Opening of the Milan Canal

Photo of the last remaining warehouse from the Milan Canal era.

The Milan Canal was officially opened on July 4, 1839, eleven years after the Mary Abbott opened the river to schooner traffic. It was an immediate success and storage warehouses were quickly erected on the south side of the basin (the last standing canal basin warehouse known as Jenkins Warehouse on lot 66 is shown in current day photos on right) and shipbuilding, which had previously been done at Fries Landing, was now moved to the north side of the basin. It was a period of unprecedented economic growth for Milan. In 1845, the stockholders of the canal voted to invest their profits from that year back into the canal which was then both deepened and widened  to accommodate ever larger lake vessels.

 

Milan was, at this time, the largest inland port on Lake Erie with the peak year for shipping on the Canal being 1847 when over 900,000 barrels of wheat were shipped from Milan.  During this time, it was not uncommon to have up to 500 or more farm wagons filled with goods stretched from the canal basin back to Plank Road all the way to what is now the Rt.601 and Rt.18 intersection. In desperation, warehouses were even built on the steep south hill beside the basin and the ships were loaded by gravity from chutes in the warehouses directly into the cargo holds. Many of the warehouses needed to have improvised trolley car systems to transport the wheat and produce to their warehouses  However, the lake schooners could only move in and out of the basin as fast as the horses and/or mules could pull them on the towpath, so it became a common sight to see ships tied together moving down the canal which allowed one set of horses to pull more than one ship from basin to river and back to the basin with a new group of ships to be loaded with goods and produce to be moved across Lake Erie.  At it's peak, more than 20 ships per day were leaving Milan's basin with full loads of wheat from farms from up to 150 miles away from Milan. River barges (called "Lighters") also transported goods on the canal to Huron. Eventually a steam driven tugboat was built at Milan shipyards and it began moving the ships on the canal.   

On the north side of the boat basin, shipbuilders were building ships as fast as they could given their experience and resources. In the twenty-seven year period between 1841 and 1868, approximately 75 lake schooners were built in Milan. At first they were in the 50 to 80 foot class, but ships this size could not keep up with the demand and so by the end of the period, the shipbuilders were building lake schooners of 150 foot with the average ship building during this period between 110' and 125'. This put a great strain on the capacity of the boat basin, the size of the canal and the engineering of the locks. Each year more and more income from the canal had to be re-invested into it for upgrading and maintenance. Improved plank roads were built so that farmers from farther away could bring their goods to Milan faster than before. It was a win-win situation for everyone. For the town fathers who saw their investment in the canal pay off in the goods sold in their stores and the services they offered, for the farmers who finally could make a decent living working the fertile soil of the area, for the shipbuilders who couldn't build ships fast enough, for the hundreds of people who could earn a living wage working on the canal and for the townspeople who saw great prosperity come to their community. This economic boom was every bit as significant and bigger than many of the gold strikes in California. It was legendary growth and the town fathers confidence in the canal grew with each passing day

Yet for all the canal's incredible success, storm clouds were gathering on the horizon and everybody was either too busy to see it coming or to confident to worry about it. The railroads had finally come to Ohio and they were working day and night to lay new tracks into previously ignored farm communities throughout north central Ohio. Every new track that was laid was like a spike driven into the heart of the Ohio canals including the Milan Canal. The railroads could simply move goods faster and more efficiently than shipping them on the canals. In order to compete with the railroads, the cost of shipping on lake schooners began to plummet and quickly reached the point of no return which was to spell the doom of lake shipping and the canal. There is nothing that anyone could have done to stop the progress of the railroads, but in Milan, rather than welcome the larger railroads in the area, the local business people saw them as a potential profit center to replace the canal and they tried to raise money to build their own railroad. However, with the financial losses from the canal fresh in the investors minds, they could not raise the necessary funding and eventually the railroads simply bypassed Milan with their trains, going instead to Norwalk and Sandusky and taking the shipping business with it. Milan's fate was sealed and by the turn of the century, Milan had returned to its roots as a quaint inland village in northern Ohio.

 

 

Painting by Ted Gorka of the Milan Canal Basin

 

Photo of Covered Bridge over the river with the dry  boat basin in foreground.

 

In 1864, 25 years after it's opening, Captain O. B. Smith piloted the last vessel to use the the Milan Canal which closed to traffic that winter when heavy ice flows damaged the lower river lock. Four years later in 1868, another flood took out the dam and without it river water could not be diverted to the canal basin and it eventually became a dry basin. During the period of time that the canal was operating, the investors actually only received a 37% return on their original investment and it was simply not economically feasible to repair the lock or the dam so the basin and it's canal quickly passed into history. For a while, the now deserted boat basin was used as an ice skating ring in the wintertime but over time trees and bushes began growing in the basin until it was not possible to skate any longer.

 

The Milan Canal - Page One - From Settlement to Construction of the Canal

The Milan Canal - Page Two - The Opening of the Canal

The Milan Canal - Page Three - The Story of the Idaho and Town Growth

The Engineering of the Milan Canal

 

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This Page Last Updated: 08/27/2015

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