The Town of Milton [†] is a historic community at the head of navigation on the Broadkill River in eastern Sussex County, Delaware. It is in the coastal area 10 to15 miles west of Lewes, Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach, Delaware's popular and growing resort centers. The Broadkill River system, which connects Milton with the Delaware Bay, is a special and unique natural environment. An important feature of the Town is its designated National Historic District, including some 188 historic buildings. Milton's town center is in the middle of the district, where Union Street crosses the Broadkill River.
[ continue ]
[ continued ]
Milton's history is written in its streets, architecture, and relationship to the Broadkill River, industrial heritage, and image and reputation throughout Delaware and beyond. Located at the headwaters of the river, this location was first used as a seasonal home and trading place first settled in prehistoric times by Native Americans of the Lenni Lenape and Nanticoke peoples. In 1609, Captain Henry Hudson explored the lands that bordered the Delaware Bay and River, claiming them for the Dutch. Beginning in 1675, English planters began settling in the area, following earlier Dutch settlement at Lewes. With the defeat of Dutch forces by the English in the 1670s, European settlement expanded from coastal areas, reaching present-day Milton in 1680. The beginnings of the Town itself reach back to early 18th century lumbering, mill, shipping and shipbuilding activities at the head of navigation on the Broadkill River. By the mid-18th century, the strategic importance of the site's placement at the river's head of navigation, coupled with a rapid growth of agriculture and milling activities, had resulted in the beginnings of an established community.
Two factors seem to have prompted the 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 waterborne attacks that plagued coastal areas and the bay front towns in the early centuries. As the community's importance as a maritime commercial hub at the "Head of Broadkiln," the community's name was officially changed later to its present name, "Milton".
The Town's shipbuilding heritage was further sustained by the amount of boats and ships built and launched in nearly two hundred years (1737 through 1915) numbering a total of 271 vessels.
The pattern of historic houses running up along Union, Federal, and Chestnut Streets was well established by the mid-19th century. Today, Milton's National Register Historic District contains many fine examples of architectural styles that parallel the community's period of prominence as a center for maritime commerce. Milton is well known for its stately "Governor's Houses," once occupied by men who served as governors of Delaware (or of Wyoming, in one case).
In 1865, the Town of Milton was formally incorporated by the state legislature with a town form of government. The community continued to prosper, and 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 service across the Delmarva Peninsula connecting Baltimore (via Chesapeake Bay steamship) to coastal Lewes, points north through Ellendale, and six miles to the west. The town's economic and political importance is illustrated by the service of four local citizens as Governor of Delaware from the 1820s through the 1870s.
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 downtown area.
Boating activity on the Broadkill once mostly related to trade and commerce, is still important today and has reoriented itself to fishing and recreation. Numerous state and national groups are working on conservation issues along the Broadkill.
Milton's economic history results from a mix of industrial and commercial uses, a diversity of population and income levels and a broad array of housing types. This healthy balance and growth has continued.
One area of significant change, however, is in the location of different types of commercial uses. For the first two hundred years 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.
Milton has always been an industrial center. It was for this reason that it was located where the river penetrated deeply into a hinterland that was rich in agriculture and timber. Successors to the original granaries and cannery have redeveloped the property into the Federal Street Medical Park as well as other businesses located in the vicinity, such as a trucking company, a machine shop, a building supply company, a sign company, television studio, and Milton's largest private-sector employer, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. All in all, it is estimated that there are approximately 1,400 jobs of all kinds in Milton.
Larger scale retail and business functions are choosing highway locations with high volumes of passing traffic and large amounts of free parking, conditions that are difficult to replicate in a downtown area. This pattern is affecting the development of roadside sites on Milton Ellendale Highway/Beach Highway/Broadkill Road (State Route 16) along Milton's north edge, including two shopping centers, Clipper Square at Milton Ellendale Highway (SR 16) and Mulberry Street (Road 197), and Milton Park Center at Milton Ellendale Highway and Union Street Extended (SR 5). Meanwhile, the town center has begun to specialize in generally smaller, more visitor-oriented uses with a diversity of local restaurants and personal service establishments.
Throughout this change, 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 specialty stores oriented to visitors and professional or service uses. There are several restaurants in Town Center, as well as the renovated historic Milton Theater, now a general performing arts center and movie theater. Just as Milton's commercial land use patterns were once shaped by shipping on the Broadkill River, and later by railroading on the Queen Anne's Railway, today they are being influenced by the area's arterial roadways, and by a new division of labor between the historic Town Center and more highway-oriented uses along SR 16.
† Town of Milton, Delaware, 2018 Comprehensive Plan, milton.delaware.gov, accessed August, 2021.
Nearby Towns: Cedar Creek Hundred • Georgetown Town •