2 In North America/ Outdoors

Cycling the Remains of Northern Ohio Towns

Cycling the Remains of Northern Ohio Towns - JoeBaur

Yesterday my father-in-law Tim and I opted for a change of scenery when it came to planning a long weekend ride. Two nights prior Melanie and I met some nice folks from Vermilion, Ohio, which I had always heard to be a pretty nice lakefront town. A quick Google Maps search confirmed that it’s within cycling distance at 30 miles, just a straight shot west along Lake Erie on Route 6.

In order to avoid simply repeating the entire route back, I threw in a little lollipop loop south through Amherst before meeting up with the lakeside route again in downtown Lorain. This, I thought, would allow me to quickly see a few towns I had always heard of, but never took the time to visit because they’re inevitably viewed as a drive away. Now equipped with Bea the BMC, suddenly it was just a bike ride away.

Small Town on a Great Lake

Scenic Northern Ohio Cycling - JoeBaur

Riding along Lake Erie is filled with plenty of bright greens, especially on a summer day that seemed handcrafted by the powers that be for cycling. Houses are naturally charming considering the prime lakeside real estate, but sometimes overly massive. At least they weren’t the cookie cutter nonsense you’ll find more inland within some God awful suburban housing complex named something along the lines of, “Flowery Waves.”

Lorain Bridge - JoeBaur

Lift bridge heading west into downtown Lorain

We reached the city of Lorain just under 20 miles into our ride. The view was underwhelming, especially
after crossing a promising, scenic lift bridge with views of the Black River, boats and Lake Erie. This didn’t seem to be much of a downtown, so we continued on without much hesitation toward Vermilion, myself thinking that we would perhaps see more during our return from the south.

West of Lorain was less of an enjoyable ride with the road quickly turning from an enjoyable ride with bike lanes and manageable speed limits to a 50mph thoroughfare that felt like a freeway. The high speeds inevitably push all things that lead to flat tires — gravel, glass, trash — to the side where speeding motorists generally expect us frail cyclists to stay. Fortunately, at least for our cycling purposes, this is America and four-lane roads are the bare minimum, even when population, commerce or traffic clearly doesn’t necessitate such infrastructure. So we were generally able to enjoy our own lane without drivers giving us much trouble other than the natural, occasional scare of a 4,000-pound metal object hurling past you over the speed limit.

The ride into Vermilion is the same sprawling madness that surrounds almost any American town regardless of size. Fast food restaurants, drug stores, car dealerships and so on. This continues until you suddenly find yourself at the beautiful heart of downtown Vermilion. There seems to be much more life in this town of about 11,000 than our pass through Lorain.

Vermilion - JoeBaur

We take a right up Main Street, presuming the lake to be nearby. Indeed it just took a slow roll to find ourselves at the Main Street Beach. Small, but incredible views of our Great Lake are to be had here. But a growling stomach trumps scenery on this occasion, so we head back to our last intersection for a sandwich at the Main Street Soda Grill.

This joint has clearly been around in some iteration since the 50’s if not earlier. Memorabilia of another era, including basically a FatHead of Wimpy from Popeye, proves the establishment’s age.

The offerings are simple, but you wouldn’t expect much more. I went with a grilled chicken sandwich and Tim a grilled cheese sandwich. Mine managed to disappear rather quickly in just a few bites. So I added a protein bar to lunch to ensure I wouldn’t bonk or hit the wall on the ride home. With that, we started our 30-some mile trek home by looping south along Vermillion and North Ridge roads.

Vermilion left an overall positive impression on me. I could see myself going back, perhaps even staying a night if someone could promise me time out on the lake. But they could certainly benefit from slowing down traffic on Route 6, which presently seems to simply speed drivers through. In fact, I couldn’t find a street name for it, even downtown, other than the Grand Army Republic Highway — the same as where it’s simply a stretch of nondescript concrete between Lorain and Vermilion. Methinks it’s in Vermilion’s best interest not to have a highway going through their town. But trends show this will inevitably change in favor of slower traffic and better streetscaping, so I expect to see even better things out of the “small town on a Great Lake” in the future.

Ghost Town

Temperatures warmed noticeably as we cycled away from Lake Erie. But these roads with speed limits at 35, sometimes 25, were much more preferable to the highway we took into Vermilion. And whereas the ride to Vermilion was almost completely flat, the hills rolled a bit more even just a few miles south.

Our next town was Amherst, whose downtown we missed since its main street is a one-way and we were going in the opposite direction. It looked as if they at least had a block of storefronts lining the street, but it was hard to get a real sense of the vibrancy when you’re turning off toward a gas station. However, a follow up search using Google Streetview confirms Amherst has a few consistent blocks with storefronts along the street. It would be dishonest or forced to give an impression beyond that.

Amherst - JoeBaur

Most notable about the ride was our return through Lorain.

After cycling past Elmwood Cemetery, we turned left up Broadway Avenue. Here we saw all the accouterments that typically surround American cities that serve no purpose but to send people further away from the city. I’m talking auto shops and car dealerships as far as the eye can see. It reminded me of cycling along Mahoning Avenue outside of Youngstown — another Ohio town that has seen its downtown fall off the cliff since 50’s suburban sprawl. But whereas Youngstown has managed to reclaim much of its core to even have a vibrant weekend scene, Lorain clearly has had no such luck.

Beginning around West 9th Street off Broadway, storefronts begin to line the streets. I kept telling Tim how surprised I was at amount of old infrastructure that has remained. Few if any buildings seemed to be knocked down for parking on the outdated belief that people will come if only they can drive.

Downtown Lorain - JoeBaur

This consistent stream of storefront buildings, some displaying impressive early 20th Century American architecture, continued for about another half-mile until we returned to our lake route. Unfortunately, Lorain has become the definition of a ghost town. This fact is as glaring as “Cash For Gold” sign upon entering downtown. Cash For Gold: Always the sign of a thriving city.

Tim agreed on downtown’s tragic abandonment, noting Hollywood has its film set for any urban disaster movie in Lorain.

Nothing seemed to be open. Only a few restaurants seemed to exist along Broadway, some of which at least looked relatively new and well-kept.

The perplexing thing is that you wouldn’t guess downtown Lorain to be so empty based on the housing stock, some of which is quite impressive along the lake. I don’t recall seeing any abandonment the same way I have in other hard-hit American cities. And given its location right on the lake and Black River, there’s no logical reason why downtown Lorain shouldn’t be an incredible, medium-sized city.

Sadly, the city seems to be a long ways away from that happening. But at least history proves it can change for the better. An old postcard from 1917 shows a much more colorful Broadway Avenue with a streetcar running along the very route we cycled. Hopefully Lorain sees the investment it deserves sooner rather than later.

Do It

Back on our lakes routes heading home, I started wondering where else I could cycle. I used to just stick to our local Towpath Trail or Cleveland Metroparks, but now I want to explore. Fortunately I have some time to think about it, since I’ll be in Costa Rica starting August 14th and likely won’t have the opportunity to summer cycle in Ohio for a couple of years.

I fear, however, that such cycling through Ohio’s or much of America’s small towns won’t exactly yield similar enjoyment as it did in Switzerland where the aforementioned accouterments of city or town killers aren’t nearly as prevalent as they are in the States. Small towns in Switzerland seem to be thriving by comparison, and all are connected by some form of public transportation where you can bring your bike along if your legs start to fail you.

Then again, perhaps things will change in some regard if business and tourism start seeing more people cycling across their respective regions in search of small town getaways. So you should do precisely that. Besides, it makes the beer and artery clogger of your choosing all the more acceptable when you’ve already burned a couple thousand calories to get there.

All photos pulled from Garmin VIRB video.

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  • Jason Hall
    August 4, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    An interesting point of view piece on your trip through small town Ohio. I’d recommend the New River Valley State Park in Virginia for your readers who fear to cycle thoroughfares or even small town main streets. Greenways such as the one here in Winston-Salem, NC stand in for rail trails and typically follow ancient trade routes, infrastructure project easements or similar natural features. For a first rate rail trail experience I’d also recommend the Virginia Creeper Trail, where you may even rent a two seater to ride with a sweetheart. Happy trails to you and stay safe on the roads less travelled.

    • Joe
      August 5, 2014 at 9:11 am

      Thanks for reading for the suggestion. Perhaps a ride out through Virginia and North Carolina is in my future. Cheers!