Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Colonel John Allen

by Carmen Doyle

Back in December, we mentioned some of the important people that got streets and places named after them. (http://historycenterfw.blogspot.com/2013/12/why-is-he-so-important.html)

One of the most prominent people in Fort Wayne was John Allen, the man for whom our county is named.

John Allen was from Kentucky. He went to Virginia to study law and then came back to Kentucky to practice, becoming a prominent lawyer.

One of the cases he helped try, with Henry Clay, was the defense of Aaron Burr in the Burr Conspiracy trial. (Burr was Jefferson’s Vice-President. In a duel, Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton, who was Secretary of the Treasury. After leaving Washington, Burr traveled to the Southwest and was later accused of treason. Accusers said he wanted to create an independent state in the Southwest. Burr was acquitted. And you thought politics today was rough!)

When the War of 1812 began, John Allen was one of the first in Kentucky to respond and was made a colonel. His regiment came to the defense of Fort Wayne at the urging of William Henry Harrison. Colonel Allen was not only a brave fighter,  he was also known to be able to rally his men’s spirits.

Allen went from the defense of Fort Wayne to the defense of River Raisin, Michigan, where he unfortunately was killed.

Allen County Courthouse c.1916
His bravery impressed many settlers and soldiers, enough that they named a county after him. Despite his short amount of time in Fort Wayne, and in Indiana, Colonel John Allen was so noteworthy that he inspired counties in three states.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Oldest Iron Bridge

by Tom Castaldi

The Wells Street Bridge is the only remaining iron truss bridge in Fort Wayne.  It was built in 1884 by the Canton Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio.  More technically it is described by experts as a Whipple through truss designed and built by the Wrought Iron Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio.  It is unusually heavy, well decorated, with wooden floor beams."  It features diagonals and counters that extend across two panels rather than being contained in just one. It was a favorite bridge design for the longest spans built in Indiana in the 1880s and 1890s.
The Wells Street Bridge in the late 1890s.

The first bridge to cross the Saint Mary’s River at this point was a wooden one. It was replaced in 1859 by the first iron bridge built in Allen County, constructed by Mosley and Company of Cincinnati, Ohio.  This bridge collapsed a year later under the weight of a large herd of cattle, many of which drowned in the river.  Its iron parts remained buried under the bank of the river for years.  In 1860, the bridge was rebuilt as an iron and wood structure on several piers.

The demolition of the 1860 bridge began on July 9, 1884, with specifications calling for the re-use of its timbers in the new bridge.  One of the Bridge Commissioners, however, accidentally destroyed the old bridge when he tried to burn off the heavy stringers that were proving too difficult to dislodge.  According to the newspapers, "Commissioner Briant was mortified to learn the timbers which he tried so hard to save and utilize were destroyed.”

During the October presidential campaign, Stephen A. Douglas, the Little Giant opposing Republican candidate Abe Lincoln, had made a speech at the Rockhill hotel on Broadway and celebrated with a parade down Main Street for a gala on the banks of the Saint Mary’s River at the Wells Street Bridge. According to historian John Ankenbruck, a great disruption occurred when a large hay wagon broke into the parade, masquerading as a float, with an Abe look-alike on the wagon splitting rails.  The Democrats, not to be out done, tossed salt on the berm of the street attracting the oxen pulling the wagon off the parade route.  No amount of urging could convince the bovine beast licking the salt to move.  That November, Allen County voted unsuccessfully for the Little Giant.

The Wells Street Bridge was completed in November, and the first vehicle to cross over the new structure was the “Republican electioneering carriage.”  It took until 1890 before electric trolley lines were laid in the bridge to connect downtown to the Bloomingdale neighborhood area on the north side of the city.

When Transfer Corner was conceived for the various trolley lines to converge, making it more convenient for passengers to board their cars, company officials appealed to the county commissioners for access across the bridge.  Until 1887 all street rail traffic had been confined to the city.  The commissioners were at first hesitant to allow rails to cross the bridge and the appeal to encourage easy access to the north side finally brought a vote to approve trolley tracts to be built over the Wells Street Bridge.

In 1991 ARCH, the historic preservation organization, created a “Most Endangered List” and added the Well Street Bridge.  In 1998  Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation acquired the bridge to be used as part of the Rivergreenway trail system.  With the use of funding from a bond issue, the Park Foundation, Fort Wayne Community Foundation, Fort Wayne Redevelopment Commission, and federal transportation enhancement funds, Wells Street Bridge was restored and reopened for pedestrian traffic.  The only remaining iron truss bridge in Fort Wayne has been listed on the National register of Historic Places. (p. 411) as a destination point for the various trolley lines to converge making it convenient for passengers to board their cars.

Originally published in Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” 
February 2009 No. 50
Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast at 6:35 a.m., 8:35 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on WLYV-1450 AM and WRRO 89.9 FM. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at history centerfw.blogspot.com.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

West Central Historic Neighborhood

 by Tom Castaldi

          West Central Neighborhood once consisted of the entire region west of the original plat of Fort Wayne and considered by the first settlers as second-rate land.  Not surprising, since it was virtually a wetland fed by two creeks that ran through its length.  One was “Shawnee Run” that rose in the south near the present-day U.S. Post Office at the old Bass Foundry and ran west along Baker Street then turned north just beyond Harrison Street.   One pioneer recalled fishing from “Shawnee Run” bridge that once stood on Wayne Street to span the Creek.

          Another much larger stream, called “Bloody Run” had its source in the wide swamp that covered the land where the present-day General Electric plant stands. The creek took its name from a story that a Miami warrior stabbed and killed a Shawnee man in 1800.  It was Chief Richardville who interceded in the situation and prevented a blood feud between the Miami and the Shawnee. “Bloody Run” eventually joined “Shawnee Run” and the two emptied into the Saint Mary’s River.

“That village of swamps” was how William Ewing described it when he bought a portion of it in the 1820s.  He was including his own home that at the time stood in the 500 block on West Berry Street.  All has changed with this grand neighborhood which is often described today as being within the borders of South Calhoun Street on the east, the Saint Mary’s River on the west and north, Taylor Street east to the Norfolk and Western Railroad, then east to South Calhoun Street.

During the canal era of the 1830s and through the 1950’s drainage projects, both improvements played a role in purging the swamps. Fort Wayne began to prosper and the west side became more attractive as a place to live and businesses too found it a good place to locate.  Perhaps one of the most significant was Rockhill House that was constructed in 1838-1840. With careful consideration given this grand building signaled what was to follow. Although it was considered far from the center of town, the hotel operators gave it the air of a fine country estate attempting to attract canal packet travelers. When rail service began, a special ornate coach engaged to bring visitors, such as presidential candidate Stephan A. Douglas, from the downtown train stations to their “country quarters.” 
The Swinney House

At about the same time, pioneer Thomas Swinney built his Federalist style home at its western edge along the Saint Mary’s River.  Following that stream to the north stood the Methodist College for Women.  The celebrated pioneer banker, Hugh McCulloch, built his great Greek Revival mansion near the site of the first French fort along the Saint Mary’s.  The west end addresses became increasingly fashionable as more of the impressive street names and their house numbers became those of the town’s emerging merchant and professional set.
The McCulloch House
At the beginning of the twentieth century and throughout the decades before World War II, the West Central neighborhood was the home of wide tree-shaded boulevards and grand mansions and fine homes.  In later years, many of these places became the names of Fort Wayne’s first arts and cultural organizations, such as the Historical Society in the Swinney Home or the Museum of Art in the Mossman mansion.

After World War II, the public began to experience a lack of interest in these fine but now outdated buildings.  Expansion, parking lots, renovations, modernization and aluminum siding became the order of the day.  Unique and grand buildings like the Ewing House were razed.  In the 1960s, however, an interest to save these structures emerged, and by 1976, the newly formed architectural preservation society, ARCH, was formed and began to advocate preservation and rehabilitation as an alternative to destruction and harmful cover-up.  Today the West Central historic district is a model for preservation, conservation, rehabilitation, and creative renovation.

          In 1976, the West Central Neighborhood won designation as Fort Wayne’s first locally designated “Historic District” and 1984 the area was listed on the national Register of Historic Places.  Protected by city, state, and national ordinances against changes detrimental to the historic character of the neighborhood, the West Central region has experienced a revival of its former grandeur with its fine homes, beautiful churches, and solid commercial buildings. What was once called a village of swamps, has become a place of pride. 

Many historic churches are in the West Central Neighborhood.

Originally published in Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi”
 Jul2009 No. 56

Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast at 6:35 a.m., 8:35 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on WLYV-1450 AM and WRRO 89.9 FM. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at historycenterfw.blogspot.com.