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History of Milton

Date Posted: Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

“MILTON, only 7 miles from the Delaware Bay in a direct line but many more by the convoluted Broadkill, is one of the little old Delaware towns that prospered through shipbuilding and shipping in the 19 century. The shipyards have long ago disappeared from the foot of Union and Federal Streets… The business section displays a rare lot of the permanent store awnings, wood or metal roofed, that was used to shade the sidewalk in front of nearly every store in lower Delaware, but have disappeared from main streets. The old part of the town contains many old cypress-shingled houses characteristic of eastern Sussex County.”

From Delaware – A Guide to the First State, American Guide Series, 1938

“MILTON – Classic example of life in a small historic town. Extensive Victorian home district in relatively rural area. Its ice cream parlor (King´s Ice Cream at Union and Broad Street, the oldest commercial building in continuous use in Sussex County) is renowned throughout the region.” – From Delaware – Quality of Life, Delaware Economic Development Office, June 1996

Milton´s history is written in its streets, its architecture, its relationship to the Broadkill River, its industrial heritage, and its image and reputation throughout Delaware and beyond. The area was first settled in prehistoric times by the Leni Lenape and Nanticoke Indians. Beginning in 1675, English planters began settling in the area, following earlier Dutch settlement in Lewes. The beginnings of the Town itself reached back to the early 18th century lumbering, mill, shipping and shipbuilding activities at the head of the Broadkill, or Broadkiln, River.

Two factors seem to have prompted the rapid development of Milton as an inland port. First, because of its interior location, it offered easy water transportation access to sources of forest and farm products. Second, because it was some 10 miles inland of Lewes via the circuitous Broadkill, it was secure from the pirate and foreign naval attacks that plagued the bayfront towns in the early centuries. Milton was founded as “Head of the Broadkiln” in 1763. Increasingly, a more urban settlement grew around present Town Center on the river´s edge, and hulls for sailing ships began to be manufactured where today´s Town Dock, Town Park and Marina are located. Mill activity accelerated as the branches tributary to the Broadkiln were dammed to create the millponds that are defining scenic elements of today´s Milton. In 1807 the Delaware Legislative changed the settlement´s name from “Head of the Broadkiln” to “Milton” in honor of the famous English poet.

By 1809, according to Delaware – A Guide to the First State:

“…besides a shipyard, there were seven granaries and four stores; tanyards were later established. Shipbuilding reached its peak between the Civil War and 1880, during which time there were on the stocks usually three or four schooners that measured as much as 125 feet in length. The stream was so narrow that there had to be excavations made on opposite side to receive the vessels as they were launched (“lanched”) down the ways. By 1887 shipbuilding had almost ceased, but six vessels plied regularly to Philadelphia and five to New York with grain, produce, lumber, cordwood, and other products (such as holly).”

The pattern of historic houses running up along Union, Federal and Chestnut Streets was well established by the mid-19th century. Today Milton´s Historic District is well known for its four stately “Governor´s Houses”, once occupied by men who served as governors of Delaware (or of Wyoming, in one case).

In 1865, Milton was incorporated with a town form of government. By the late 19th century, the industrial development of granaries and crop processing was well established in the south end of Town. Here the Queen Anne´s Railroad (later called the Maryland & Delaware Coast Railway) crossed Federal and Chestnut Streets, with rail services to points north through Ellendale, 6 miles to the west.

By the early 20th century, Milton´s town center was well developed with general merchandising stores, shops, taverns and restaurants and a movie theater. In 1909 a fire destroyed 14 buildings in the down town area, with $400,000 worth of damage.

Boating activity in the Broadkill, still important today, has reoriented itself to fishing and recreation over the years. Numerous state and national groups are working on conservation issues along the Broadkill.

The history of Milton is especially important in influencing historic preservation and revitalization efforts along Federal and Union Street. In 1980, Sussex County renovated a former store on Union Street as the Milton Branch of the Sussex County Library. After a strong local effort, the Milton National Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on June 25, 1982. At the same time, Milton residents worked to advance the revitalization of the Town Center using principles of the National Main Street Program. The town participated in the Main Street Program from 1995 through 1997. Major improvements have been made to the Broadkill waterfront at the Town Park. Victorian light poles have been installed. The handsome “Governors´ Walk” pedestrian promenade was completed along the central portions of the Broadkill. Several new shops and businesses have opened in the downtown area. New bed and breakfasts have been established in the Historic District. Property values in the district have appreciated significantly in recent years.

Milton´s economic history has meant a balance of industrial and commercial uses, a diversity of population and income levels and a broad array of housing types. The healthy balance and growth is continuing today. One area of significant change, however, is in the location of different types of commercial uses. For the first two hundred years of life in Milton, the town center was the location of virtually all of the community´s commercial activity. Today´s Milton retains its general focus on the historic center. Federal and Union Streets, as in the past, form a main north-south spine of movement, land use and civic life. But a more specialized pattern of commercial land use has taken hold. Larger scale retail and business functions are choosing highway locations with high volumes of passing traffic and large amounts of free parking, conditions which are difficult to replicate in a downtown area. This pattern is affecting the development of roadside sites on Route 16 along Milton´s north edge. During the past 5-10 years, the Route 16/Broadkiln Pike edge of Milton has seen larger scale development in the form of Clipper Square retail plaza, the Bayport Business Park and the Shipbuilders Village and Milton Landing residential projects.

Milton has always been an industrial center. It was for this reason that it was located where the river penetrated deeply into a hinterland rich in agriculture and timber. Successors to the original granaries continue to do business in the southside industrial area, along with a trucking company, a lumber company and a sign company. These have been joined by a successful plastics company that relocated to Milton from Long Island. All in all, it is estimated that there are some 550 jobs of all kinds in Milton.

The historic Town Center remains the civic center, and has welcomed new office and commercial uses suited to its central location, pedestrian scale and historic ambiance. These include antique, gift and specially stores oriented to bayshore visitors and professional or service uses such as an investment counseling office of Federal Street. Just as Milton´s commercial land use patterns were once shaped by shipping on the Broadkill, and later by railroading on the Queen Anne´s Railway, today they are being influenced by the area´s arterial roadways, and by new division of labor between the historic Town Center and more highway-oriented uses along Route 16.

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