The Haunting Story of the Idaho Bell

Editors Note: This story was written last summer from my memories on the trail, but I choose to post it on October 31st. because it seemed fitting to post it on Halloween. You can choose to believe it or not...

When I first moved to the Milan area, I wanted an inexpensive exercise program that could help my arthritis in my knees and keep my weight off. It wasn't long before I discovered the Erie MetroParks and l began walking the parks around Milan and one of those parks that I walked was the Greenway Trail. I was soon fascinated with the history of Milan and in particular the Milan Canal and the towpaths from Milan to the opening in Huron River so I spent a good amount of time at the Greenway walking the towpaths. One day I would walk from north (DuPont Marsh) to south for about 2 miles and the next day I would walk from south (Mason Road) to north for another two miles and other days I would walk the Milan side of the trail.

Over a period of time, I became familiar with the face of people who I saw walking on the trail. Most guys, about my age were also walking for exercise and eventually we began to greet each other and stop and have conversations about the weather or what was ailing us that day or reflecting upon “the golden years” which weren't so golden for most of us. All that sounds pretty normal I guess, but during this time I also meet a guy on the trail that told me a fascinating story that I will pass on to you. I don’t know if the story is true or just an old man wanting to talk about something that would get my attention. I do know that I’ve heard variations of the same story from several different people who live in this area, which seems to give some credence to the story. Here is the story as I remember it…

In early October of 2004, we had a nasty storm which required me to get up early the next morning to gather my porch furniture, that had been blown into the yard, and put it back on the patio. And since I was already up and dressed, I decided to walk that morning, instead of my usual afternoon walk. On the way to the Greenway, I stopped and picked up a breakfast sandwich at McDonalds and a large, steaming cup of coffee. I ate the sandwich while driving to the parking area beside the water tower at DuPont Marsh. When I parked in the lot, I finished my coffee while enjoying the beautiful fall day with trees turning spectacular shades of yellow and orange and red.

I began walking north on the Greenway. It was a crisp morning with wet fall leaves covering the limestone walkway and the air was fresh and crystal clear like it always is after a hard rain. I stopped whenever I came to a bench to stretch my legs and when I finally got to the Deering Memorial Bridge there was an elderly, white haired gentleman sitting on the bench with his feet on the trail.  He had a cane across his lap, and his right hand held a leash that was attached to a small brown and white beagle dog sitting beside him on the ground. Actually the dog was sitting with his head looking out over the water and seemed to be enjoying this beautiful day as much as me. The older gentleman looked weary from his walk. We exchanged greetings and I asked if I could sit beside him to rest from my walk, and he motioned for me to join him beside the bench.

We stated talking about the weather and then he told me that he also walked the trail each day and that his dog was old and needed to have rest stops on their walk each day and he reached down and petted the dog. I wondered who needed the rest stop more - this old guy or the dog. And then he looked up at me and said “I heard the bell last night” as if this was something I knew about.  Actually I’m deaf in my left ear, so at first I thought I had misheard him and said to him “I’m sorry, did you say you heard the bell last night?” I asked and he nodded to answer my question.

“What bell?” I asked.

And he looked at me and got a sort of grin on his face and said, “You’re not from around here are you?”

“No, I moved here about three years ago” I replied.

“Well, a long time ago there used to be schooner ships on the river going between Milan and Huron on the Milan Canal and one of the ships got stuck in the mud at the entrance of the canal and was never moved”  he explained.

I already knew the story of the schooner ship being abandoned in the canal, so I said “You’re talking about the Idaho?”

He said “Yes, are you familiar with the story”.

I was and explained to him that I actually had a site on the Internet which talked about the Idaho and the Milan Canal and I’d actually been down to the river to wade in the spot where the Idaho had stopped in the canal.

“Yeah,” he said, "my grandfather used to tell tales about how he fished off the stern of the Idaho. Course, that was long before my time. My dad said that by the time he came along in 1900’s, the Idaho was just a shell, more hazards for kids than a ship. I live just over in the next section (pointing to the south) on River Road in the house my grandfather built. Course, it’s been added to over the years but the view is still the same over the river and I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years on this trail.  Been walking it for years and mostly it was train tracks, but now the metro people has cleaned out the tracks and turned this into a cinder trail and it’s much nicer walking it”

And then he told me about the big flood in '69 and the steam engines that used to pull the loaded boxcars over the trail and how he could set his watch to the train schedules and how he’d seem many strange things over the years on the walkway, but the strangest to him was the Idaho bell. This is how he explained it:

“My grandfather lived here when the Idaho was stuck in the canal and ships in that day had a large bell engraved with the ships name to use when they were sailing in fog. Anyway, when the Idaho was tied up to the lock, whenever a strong wind came up the river it rocked the boat, and my grandfather used to hear the bell clang with each gust of wind. He said the first winter the Idaho was in the canal, he used to hear the bell clang each time a wind came up and the stronger the wind or storm, the more the bell sounded and if the wind was blowing north, it was really noticeable. And he could always tell because the Idaho bell had a unique sound to it, sort of an echoing sound. Over the winter everyone got used to the distinctive sounding bell, but eventually it stopped and he thought either the owner removed the bell or some annoyed neighbor took it off the ship. A lot of people still think they can hear the bell“

“And you think that is the bell you heard?” I asked smiling at the old man.

“I hope not” he said with a frown and he looked out across the pond towards Franklin Flats. I thought after a few minutes that might be the end of the story and just when I was prepared to get up and finish my walk, he began telling the rest of the story.

My dad told me about the bell. The day my grandfather died, he told my dad "he'd heard the bell during the night and felt it was almost calling to him".  Later that day he passed on from a heart attack. My father said he didn’t hear the bell that night but several years later, my grandmother, who now lived with my parents, told my dad she had heard a bell during the day and that evening my grandmother died in her sleep. My father still hadn't heard the bell so he was thinking it may just have been old age playing tricks on my grandparents.

In January of 1930, my older sister became ill with winter flu and it progressed into pneumonia. That night, my father said he woke up from his sleep and saw my sister standing in the hall staring out the window towards the river. He asked her what was the matter and she said she could hear a bell and she felt it was calling to her. He listened to the wind blowing outside but he couldn't hear a bell. And then he remembered about his parent’s death and the thought of it scared him and he went and woke up my mother to see if she could hear the bell, but she couldn’t hear the bell either. But when they got up in the morning, my sister was burning up with fever and they called the doctor and he barely got to the house before my sister passed away.

My father was now convinced the bell was a bad omen and hoped he would never hear it.  My father lived to be 76. The day he turned 76, he called me early in the morning and said that he heard the bell last night and just in case anything happened to him, he wanted me to know that he loved me very much.  Later that afternoon my father was killed in a train accident.  

I moved into the house after my dad passed on and I’ve been here for almost 30 years and a few years ago my wife passed away and I live alone now.  I never heard the bell when my wife passed on so I figured it was mostly superstition. But last night, about three in the morning I woke up and I could hear a bell in the distance. And to me it sounded slow and sang to me with its clang. So, I’m a little jumpy today.”

I thought about what he said and I said it could be anything you heard – the wind was strong last night and you might have heard a cowbell, a yard bell, a school bell or a church bell. Really anything could explain the bell so I think you’re safe from the missing ship's bell. He stuck out his chin and said “Yeah…could have been anything.”

And then he got up and stretched and looked down at me and added, “The thing is the bell has a distinctive sound. It clangs and then the sound tails off in a musical way. Not like a church bell or cow bell or dinner bell." And he turned and looked south down the trail and he shook his head and pulled up the leash so that his dog would get up to walk with him. And then he turned around and waved to me and he and the dog started walking slowly on the trail. I watched him and the dog, until they were out of sight, and I thought what a sad story and no wonder he was jumpy today.

Of course, I couldn’t get the story out of my thoughts and that evening I spent a restless night in bed. My wife woke up during the night and asks me what was bothering me and I told her about the story I heard on the trail that day. She suggested that I again walk the trail the next morning at the same time to prove to myself that it was just a tall tale by a guy who was probably lonely and wanted someone to talk with on the trail. So, the next morning I did walk the Greenway Trail and stopped for a long time at the Deering Bridge but I never saw the old gentleman. And that really bothered me, so for the next several weeks I walked the trail every morning at various times and never did see the man with the bell story again. Now, five years later, I still walk the trail. Sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon and sometimes in the evening but I’ve never seen that old man again. 

But that’s not the end of the story. The next spring I was walking on the south end of the trail and had a conversation with the bike guy (a guy who always rides a bike for exercise on the trail) and he told me he lived in Franklin Flats and I asked him if he ever heard a bell on the trail or at his home and he said did I mean the “Idaho bell?” I was stunned that he mentioned the bell and he saw the look on my face and said all the old timers in this area know abut the bell and when the wind was blowing towards the north, you could actually hear the bell at Franklin Flats. I asked him if he ever heard the bell and he said “he never did hear the bell”, but he said there were a lot of stories associated with the bell – some say it’s a bell of doom, but he never believed it because he never talked to anyone who actually heard the bell. In the end, he thought it was just an old wives tales.

Maybe so….but I’d feel a lot better if I ran across that old man again.  

The following summer, I was walking past the Idaho historical marker on the trail and I noticed a man with a pencil in his hand and drawing in a sketch book. I was naturally curious, so I asked him what he was drawing and he told he was going to draw the ship Idaho and he was there to sketch the terrain at the entrance of the canal. Turns out his name was Luke and he was an old Navy man who had recently retired to Norwalk and he had a great interest in old ships and he was putting his interest on paper. I asked him if he ever heard the story of the bell on the Idaho and he said he didn’t and so I told about my meeting with the old man. He was fascinated by my story and at the end of the story he said "That makes sense."

"What makes sense?" I said.

"Well, before pleasure boats of today, most ships were working ships. And the bell on each ship was relative to the size of the ship and many believed the bell was the heart of the ship and it was treated with reverence by the crew. If people are really hearing  the bell, it's because it's the sound of the ship, the same as a heartbeat. Although I can't imagine that the Idaho's bell would be left on an abandoned ship," he said and continued “You know…I think I’m going to research that bell and maybe I'll draw it up”. I gave him my card and said, if you ever get the bell drawn up, send me a copy and he said he would.

About six months later in the long, cold days of the wintertime, I was sitting at home and watching TV, when I heard a knock on my door. When I answered it, the Fed Ex delivery person was standing with a large envelope and he had me sign for it. When I closed the door and turned around, my wife asked what I had and I said I had no idea but it must be important since I needed to sign for it. When I opened the envelope there where two thick pieces of cardboard that were taped together. I went into the kitchen to get a knife and cut the tape and when I opened the cardboard, there was the drawing of the Idaho bell. My wife said she saw a grin on my face when I read the note that Luke sent with the painting:

"I hope I've done the bell justice and thanks for a great story."

I had the drawing professionally framed and it's hanging in our home. If you've made it through this story and found what happened to me interesting, then maybe you'll want to see the drawing of the bell. Below is a link to the bell drawing. And if you live on north River Road or Franklin Flats or on Mason Road around that Huron River area, I sincerely hope that you'll never, never hear the bell.

Click Here To See the Idaho Bell

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