FREMONT, Ohio — This town on the Sandusky River has seen its share of hope and despair.

Fremont contains a surprising amount of history, good and bad. Here, Daniel Boone was once held captive by American Indians, the United States won a crucial victory in the War of 1812, a cruel dungeon caged prisoners in the 1840s, and the first presidential library was built.

All that history — plus a sprinkling of great restaurants and easy access to the attractions of Lake Erie — makes Fremont an attractive destination for day-trippers or overnight visitors.

A good place to start is at one of the oldest Ohio county courthouses, which holds a dark and dismal secret at its foundations.

The dungeon beneath the Sandusky County Courthouse received its first prisoner in 1842 before the building above it was even completed.

Inmate George Thompson, a convicted murderer, had escaped a less-secure wooden jail several times. He spent about a year in the county’s new, windowless dungeon on a diet of bread and water before being led back into the light — to be executed. That’s just one of many tales of crime and punishment told on the Historic Jail Tour hosted periodically by the Sandusky County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The tour begins in another historic jail, built in 1892. The Queen Anne-style building is a stone beauty with turrets and lovely architectural ornaments — and three floors of jail cells. The front half of the building served as a residence for the county sheriff and his family and has been remodeled as offices for county commissioners and their staff.

The back half, the jail, housed prisoners until the 1980s. Today it’s usually empty except when tours pass through.

The 1892 jail seems a dismal place, but far more humane, certainly, than the dungeon. It was built as part of a prison-reform movement that was supported by Fremont resident Rutherford B. Hayes, who advocated prisoner rehabilitation and was an early opponent of the death penalty. (More on Hayes anon.)

An underground passage links the newer jail and the courthouse, which has been expanded and remodeled several times. But the original dungeon remains beneath, a dim, eerie cavern that’s disturbingly claustrophobic.

The jail tours also ascend to the attic of the courthouse, where a rare, original (and surprisingly well-crafted) gallows, used to hang a prisoner on the courthouse lawn in 1883, is displayed.

Nighttime “Dungeon Descent” tours are also offered, hosted by a local paranormal research club that allows guests to use electronic equipment to hunt for spirits.

Across from the courthouse, a historical marker denotes the site of an Indian village where Boone, frontiersman Simon Kenton and many other white captives were held prisoner during 18th century conflicts.

A block away is the former site of Fort Stephenson, where 21-year-old Maj. George Croghan led American troops to victory over a British regiment during the War of 1812.

Today, the site is marked by a Soldiers Monument and by “Old Betsy,” the small cannon Croghan and his troops used to repel the British. Croghan, who died years later, is buried at the site.

Adjacent to the monument is the Birchard Public Library, founded by none other than Rutherford B. Hayes, who served as the first chairman of the library’s board of trustees. (Hayes’ uncle, Sardis Birchard, bequeathed the money to build the library.)

Much more about that Hayes fellow can be learned at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums at his Spiegel Grove estate in Fremont.

Hayes was a lawyer, Civil War officer and Ohio governor. He also served one term as the 19th president of the United States.

The museum offers detailed information about the presidential election of 1876, which was remarkably contentious, perhaps even more so than those of recent memory. (Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to blah blah blah and so forth.)

Hayes lost the popular vote, but eventually, after much political wrangling and dealing, was declared president by the margin of one electoral vote.

Visitors to the Hayes Museum can also tour his 31-room mansion, an impressive domicile even by presidential standards. The original furnishings are among the most complete of any historic presidential home, perhaps because the property never left the Hayes family until it became a museum.

The home underwent a massive renovation completed in 2012. Researchers used photos taken in the house during the former president’s residency to restore much of it to the look of the time, down to the position of the photos and paintings on the walls.

The museum also hosts concerts, festivals and many other events throughout the year at the park-like 25 acres of Spiegel Grove.

For refreshment during a Fremont visit, I’d recommend a morning stop at Down Thyme Cafe for a latte and scone.

I enjoyed a grilled-chicken sandwich with avocado and an unusual and tasty strawberry barbecue sauce at the Garrison Food & Spirits. The Garrison also offers more traditional tavern-style fare, of course, plus a nice selection of draft craft beers.

And for dinner, try Scarpetta’s Italian, a casual upscale restaurant with a good wine selection and some of the best Italian food I’ve found in Ohio. In any case, it certainly beat the fare available in your average dungeon.

— Steve Stephens can be reached at sstephens@dispatch.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.