The Milan Canal - Milan, Ohio


Page Three - The "Idaho" Comes Home to Milan

In all the stories and legends of the Milan Canal, perhaps no single event is more representative of the end of that golden period than the story of the lake schooner "Idaho".  It's a story that's been passed down from one generation to another and there probably aren't any lifelong citizens of Milan who haven't heard the story and probably paid their respects to the ship that guarded the Milan Canal.

Our story begins in 1863 when the successful local shipbuilder and merchant, A. J. Mowry built a new lake schooner at the Milan Shipyards and christened her the "Idaho". She was 135' long, 24 11/12' beam, 11 1/2' deep and was capable of carrying 350 ton in her cargo holds. Every piece of lumber in the Idaho came from timber in Erie County and she costs about $25,000 to build. Captain John Jennings (of Milan, Ohio) was the skipper when she was first put into commission.

The Idaho sailed the Great Lake ports for almost 10 years and she served her owner well. When Capt. Jennings retired, he turned her over to Captain James Wood who was her master for the remainder of her sailing days. As noted previously, hard economic times came to the lake schooners and in 1873, Mowry ordered the ship back to Milan for repairs while waiting for the shipping market to rebound. Five years previously the dam and upper locks at Milan were destroyed so the plan was hopefully to bring the ship up the canal to the dry docks and pull her off the canal for repairs.

Captain Wood brought the "Idaho" up the Huron River on her first voyage back home to Milan since her launching. The ship entered the canal and tied up at the docks at the beginning of the canal. The Captain sent word to town that the ship was tied up at the lower dock and the owner instructed the Captain to discharge the crew and maintain watch at the ship (shown on drawing at right). When winter came in 1873/74, the Idaho was still tied to the dock waiting for repairs. She was barely in the canal and later many locals would tell of how they fished the river off her stern. It's not documented how many days, weeks or months Captain Wood stayed with the ship but when spring came the ship was showing the ravishes of the brutal winter months with a torn sail blowing in the wind and the ship listing to one side of the canal. Another winter came and went and then another until finally this once magnificent lake schooner was beyond repair and she became part of the landscape of the canal. In 1880 the remains of the ship were sold for scrape iron and she was torn apart to the waterline, a 120 foot mast was brought to Milan and erected in the square for a flagstaff which stood for many years to honor the Idaho. No ship or barge ever traveled the man-made Milan Canal again and none could have gotten past the Idaho who stood guard at the entrance to the canal. Over time the few remains of the Idaho disappeared although some metal remnants of the famed Idaho still exit even today - 139 years later. The photo on the left was taken in 2012 and it shows the remains of the schooner "Idaho".


Tug Boat Iced In for Winter Season at Milan Canal


While this was a time of great prosperity for many of the merchants, sailors and shipbuilders of Milan, the Canal did not impact the area with population growth because much of the land in the town was owned by Ralph Lockwood who had no desire to develop his land. However, in 1838, Mr. Lockwood passed away and his land, although tied up in court for ten years, was eventually sold and because of that sale, the population of Milan began to increase significantly. In fact, Milan's greatest growth was between 1849 and 1851 when its population jumped from 550 to over 1300 citizens. Over 50 new homes were also built during that time span. To put this into historical context, one need only know that the population of the town of Milan today in 2005 is still less than 1,500 people.  

In the over 200 years that the Village of Milan has existed, no single period of time is historically more significant than the brief 29 year period from the beginning to the end of the Milan Canal in the mid-1800's. It established the towns greatest growth of population and its largest economic boom. Much of what you see today - the historic homes and buildings of Milan (beginning in 1817), the Milan Inn (built in 1845), the town square (established in 1867), Soldiers and Sailors Monument (dedicated in 1867), the town hall (1876) most of the downtown buildings and numerous landmarks around town all came into being during this extraordinary period of time or directly as a result of the economic growth of this period.


Sadly, many significant landmarks from this historic period have been lost such as the 75 lake schooners built in Milan, 13 of the 14 warehouses of that era have disappeared and the wood covered bridge which was built in 1836 (shown in photos on page two) and was replaced by the King Iron bridge in 1882.  Shipbuilding moved back to Abbotford/Fries Landing for a few years, when the last ship built in Milan Township was thought to have been completed  in 1883. As for the canal itself, well on July 21, 1881 the Milan Canal Company leased the towpaths of the canal to the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad who built tracks on some of the towpaths and ran a freight train through the area. It is ironic that the very thing that brought the downfall to the canal, may also have been the thing that saved it for future generations. In 1986, the  railroad ceased using the tracks and sold the lease rights to the Erie Metroparks, whose intent was to establish a linear trail park for the people of Erie County. EMP and the Canal are in dispute on the owners of the land and finally, EMP settled the suit by abandoning the Greenway. The land over which the Milan Canal traveled is still there, if you take the time to look for it. The mostly dry, now forested boat basin is just to the right of the downtown Milan entrance to the towpaths. The railroad running across the land did change some of the geography, but lower parts of the bottomland still contain water and in the springtime when rain is plentiful and before the vegetation begins to grow, you can see water flowing through areas of the canal (see photos below) and if you take a walk down the towpaths, you can follow it's path into Milan history.


"The Village as it sleeps on it's tree crowned hill is still beautiful in the summer, but all signs of business activity have vanished, and what remains consists of residences and a few stores clustering around the village green. Milan's hope of becoming a great city are dead and buried and nearly all of those who dreamed of a greater Milan, sleep beneath the sod of the hillside."

A writer speaking of the formal greatness of Milan from the Firelands Pioneer #2053, vol 17-21


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


The Haunting Story of the Idaho Bell


Resource Acknowledgements and Credits

Notes on the Milan Canal

It is impossible to tell the story of the Milan Canal without pointing out that historians sometimes disagree on events that took place in specific periods of time. Since the canal was opened over 160 years ago, there obviously is no one alive today who can speak with absolute authority on the subject. I have read all of the books, periodicals and resource papers in the "Resource Acknowledgements" and researched the subject extensively at the Milan Library and at the Milan Historical Museum and spoken at  length with various people about the canal. But, in spite of my efforts, there are still many unanswered questions about the canal. For example, we know that the Milan Canal closed in 1864 because a heavy spring ice flow damaged the lower lock at the entrance to the Huron River and yet shipbuilding continued in Milan another four years until approximately 1868, when the dam and upper canal lock was damaged beyond repair. Given those facts, the question then becomes how did these large schooner boats get from the Milan shipyards to the Huron River during this four year period? Obviously with empty cargo holds, the ships floated higher in the water and it's possible that the heavy sails and masts where added after the ships passed through the canal (perhaps final ship rigging was done at Fries Landing or at shipyards in Huron). We can also assume that as long as the dam was in place, there was probably sufficient water in the canal for the ships to move most of the way down the canal. However, that does not explain how they got through the damaged lower lock and into the river. Some locals have theorized  that the ships were moved down the canal during the spring rainy season when the water would have been deeper, but we just don't know exactly how ships were able to move down the canal and through the lower lock during this transitional period.

The river locks themselves also present an interesting mystery to this area. Most of the documents discussing the canal, indicate that there were two locks on the canal. Yet, the original contract reportedly called for three locks to be built on the canal. Some people who have studied the Milan Canal - as it exits today -  believe there was only one lock (at the river entrance of the canal) because they haven't yet been able to locate a section of embankment that would be necessary to support a second river locks (see Milan Canal Engineering page for additional information). And it's also very possible that the railroad actually built the train tracks over the lock and parts of the canal itself.

Another mystery is where exactly was Fries Landing? We know it was on the Homer Page farm which was on the west side of the Huron River. Part of that problem is that when the new Mason Road Bridge was constructed, it cut through the Page farm at the river, so today - part of Fries Landing is on the north side and part on the south side of the west side of Mason bridge. Too date no one has been able to show exactly where all of the shipbuilding by Valentine Fries took place. A map from 1874 shows Fries Landing to be on the west bank of the river and on the north side of the original Mason Road at Abbott's Bridge (Abbottsford)  which is shown as 1 1/4 miles ABOVE the entrance of the Milan Canal (shown in map). Given the depth of the water in that part of the Huron River, we can assume that the Fries shipbuilding was north of the current Mason Road Bridge. Also , part of the confusion on Fries Landing is that it has been widely reported that the Huron section of the towpath went to Abbott's Landing and then the question is "why are there no towpaths visible in this area?". Obviously there is some confusion as to where the Huron towpath ended it's part of the project. Some believe it went to Abbottsford  because Abbott's (later Fries)  was the most active shipyard on the river, others believe it went only to the future entrance of the Milan Canal since it's purpose was to serve the canal traffic. We may never know because over the years the shape of the river has changed somewhat and the towpath may have also flattened out over the last 140 years or so. 

There are literally dozens of un-answered questions from the Milan Canal period of time and we will most likely never know the answer to many of the questions.  However, the pertinent facts are clear as they were recorded in various newspapers and documents of the day. To my knowledge, other than the above photo of a tugboat on the canal, there are no existing photographs of the Milan Canal from that era. I invite any of the readers of this page to send me an e-mail if they have information to add  to this Milan Canal summary or can recommend additional source material or know of any photos that may exist.  


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