Downtown Milford’s History
Milford is known as the Gateway to Southern Delaware. Located at the intersection of U.S. 113 and Route 1, it is midway between the state capital, Dover, and the Atlantic beach communities of lower Delaware—Lewes, and Rehoboth, Dewey and Bethany Beaches. Wilmington, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia are within 100 miles.
Sited along the Mispillion River, Milford straddles the Kent-Sussex county line. With a 2010 population of 9559, Milford is the sixth largest city in Delaware. Approximately 20,000 people live within a 5-mile radius of Milford.
Downtown Milford’s crown jewel is the Mispillion Riverwalk, a greenway space designed to preserve the town’s waterfront. Along this walk were once located seven shipyards that produced over 600 wooden sailing ships between 1680 and 1927.
Ample free parking is available downtown in one of the parking lots maintained by the Milford Parking Authority or street side.
Greater Milford has a diversified economy, with food processing, textiles, chemical and rubber products, fabricated metal products, millwork, electrical industrial apparatus, construction and agricultural businesses. The service sector is also strong. A major regional hospital is located near the downtown. And educational, job training, and vocational rehabilitation centers are located throughout the city.
The area surrounding Milford boasts pastoral beauty and abundant recreational resources. Nearby is Abbott’s Mill Nature Center, which offers environmental education programs and outdoor activities. The Mill itself is one of the few surviving water-powered mills. Walking trails, swimming and other recreational facilities are found in Killen’s Pond State Park. Plus the beaches of Delaware Bay and the Atlantic are just a short drive away.
The Kent County side of Milford was first settled in 1680 by Henry Bowan on what was known as the Saw Mill Range. A century later the Reverend Sydenham Thorne built a dam across the Mispillion River to generate power for his gristmill and sawmill. Around the same time, Joseph Oliver laid out the first city streets and plots nearby on a part of his plantation. Soon a number of homes and businesses appeared along Front Street and Milford was born. The city was incorporated in 1807.
In the 1770’s, a ship building industry was already flourishing on the Mispillion River. Shipbuilding continued to be the major industry of Milford through World War I, bringing considerable prosperity to the town. The high point came in 1917 when the four-masted, 174 foot long Albert F. Paul was launched from the William G. Abbott shipyard. At one point six shipyards were operating in the downtown area. When the last of the area’s giant white oaks was cut in the 1920s, the shipyards quickly went out of business, although the Mispillion ships sailed on for many years. (The Paul was sunk by a German torpedo in 1942 while sailing from the Bahamas.) The Vinyard shipyard was called into service in both WW I and II to build submarine chasers.
During much of the twentieth century Milford’s downtown served as the commercial center of a large agricultural community. But in recent years most retail outlets and business have located outside the downtown area. Today Milford’s historic downtown is finding a new role as the center of community life.
To learn more about Milford’s history, contact this great local resource: