SANDUSKY - Elizabeth Wharry knew about the historic underground railroad trolley tour, but this weekend's Festival of Ships surprised the psychic investigator.
For $11, Ms. Wharry rode the freedom trolley around Sandusky as it passed the buildings that harbored escaped slaves, toured a pair of schooners, cruised Lake Erie, and watched her two sons build model sailboats out of wood and glue.
"Can you beat the price? I don't think so," Ms. Wharry whispered yesterday. "It's really a well-kept secret."
Anchored through Tuesday at the Meigs Street Pier are a pair of tall ships, part of a celebration that includes concerts, architectural tours, a pirate impersonator known as Capt'n Willie, and fireworks that begin at dusk on July 4.
The festival is an opportunity for Sandusky, a city of about 27,000, to be more than home to Cedar Point, the roller coaster heaven that attracts 3 1/2 million visitors each year.
"We want to encourage them to come to Cedar Point, absolutely, but we want them to stay another day and enjoy some of our treasures," said Gary Packan, Sandusky's assistant city manager.
The schooners, the Madeline and the Journey, are available for tours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. During that time, the Sawmill Explorer, which ferried passengers between Sandusky and Cedar Point as the Dispatch more than 30 years ago, will run a 45-minute circuit of the Lake Erie coastline.
Private sponsors and grants paid for the $30,000 festival, which was organized by the Maritime Museum of Sandusky, the city's parks, recreation, and horticultural services department, and the Sandusky/Erie County Visitors and Convention Bureau.
The city previously hosted tall ships, most notably a re-creation of the infamous HMS Bounty, the British naval vessel taken over by mutiny in 1789.
Tall ships have become popular attractions. Cleveland will host its own festival next week, which limited Sandusky's access to stately brigs, said Neil Allen, director of the Maritime Museum of Sandusky.
There are the inescapable modern trappings of outboard motors, stainless steel sinks, and Dacron sails that have replaced the historically accurate and easily sun-rotted canvas. Yet remembrances of the past abound in the sight of 70-foot masts that bridge water and sky.
A reconstruction of a schooner made in 1845, the Madeline spans 92 feet from bowsprit to stern. The sails emerging from its two masts cover 2,205 square feet, the same area as a house. Annual maintenance costs are $35,000, said Jerry Reynard, who is skippering the craft for its owner, the Maritime Heritage Alliance of Traverse City, Mich.
The original carried fish, salt, package freight, and passengers in the 1870s, when more than 6,000 schooners filled the Great Lakes.
Because of that traffic, pioneers could push into the Western Plains and supplies could reach sapling cities, Mr. Reynard said.
At least one visitor was tempted to overthrow the Madeline's nine-person crew. "We were going to hijack this one, but we didn't know how to sail it," said Chris Sautter, a retiree living in Point Place.
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