Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Little Wabash River and a Little River Wetland

by Tom Castaldi

One of the most important pathways in early Middle America is found here in our region.  It passed through the Great Marsh and was known as “The Portage” by the French explorers who recognized it as a strategic part of the most direct water route to the Wabash and Mississippi - supported nicely by a tributary we know today as the Ohio River. The Portage was the only land barrier that stood in the way and connected Quebec with New Orleans by joining the Maumee and Wabash river valleys.

As early as 1701 the English governor of the colony of New York invited the Miami people to trade there. Although some trade may have taken place, the Miami chose instead to strengthen their position on the Maumee-Wabash portage line. In turn, the French were compelled to set up trading and military posts at Kekionga, now Fort Wayne, and Ouiatenon, near present-day Lafayette.  The Miami then invited the English to come west to trade, but all did not turn out so well for them. Rather than creating a partnership with both the French and the English, it instigated contention among the two competing European nations, each strategizing for Miami loyalty.

  When the first explorers and fur traders came along, the resident Indian population introduced them to the short land bridge separating two important river systems.  Historians describe it as being a stretch of land ranging from six to nine miles in length depending on the time of the year that joined the navigable portions of the St. Mary’s River – which helps form the Maumee flowing into Lake Erie – and the Little Wabash River that connects the Mississippi via the Wabash and Ohio rivers.  During periods of high water, American Indians spoke of having passed from one river to the other in their canoes, and in fac,t today’s U.S. Highway 24 west generally follows along the passage connecting Fort Wayne with Huntington.

In many ways the land barrier separated an expanding America from a yet to be developed one, which led to the creation of an artificial waterway. In the days of sprawling marshes and wilderness forests, a canal was constructed and boats could be seen gliding along, offering transportation between the Midwest and the Eastern Seaboard. Through this land barrier into the Mississippi River on to the Gulf of Mexico an immigrant route was created that helped start up towns and enlarge old ones.

A gift of geography, this throughway originally was shaped by an ice glacier as it receded some ten thousand years ago, establishing a vast marshland.  To the east it formed the Black Swamp and Lake Erie. To the west, the Wabash River valley was created.  However, the great lake and the state river are not all that marks the great geological event.

For the last ten or so thousand years, the path of the glacier’s melt water that formed the Little Wabash River made a passageway for native peoples and animals alike, beginning as a footpath expanding to cart path, to canal towpath, to rail beds and finally roads and highways. Efforts to drain the Great Marsh began in the late 1800s.  After four attempts, the rich bottom land was successfully ditched and drained for farming.  Nonetheless, it tended to get too wet during rainy years but some persistent farmers did work the land of the old marsh.

Now after more than twenty years, the non-profit Little River Wetlands Project is restoring wetlands once part of the original 25,000 acre Great Marsh through the work of a dedicated board, staff, and volunteers.  A group of citizens began the project in 1990, concerned with the knowledge that 85% of Indiana’s original wetlands had been lost. In Allen County the disappearance of wetlands meant the local rivers were more prone to flooding and native wildlife was at risk due to habitat loss. The organization’s founders soon identified the Little Wabash River Valley not fully built up with home and commercial structures still had land available for wetlands restoration and protection.

As the Little River Wetlands Project has grown, it has restored three properties to wetlands: Eagle Marsh, Arrowhead Marsh and Arrowhead Prairie.  With these preserves and a conservation easement on private land, the organization now protects over 1,000 natural acres in the Little Wabash River valley. Eagle Marsh, the largest preserve at 705 acres, has been slowly returned to its original historical grandeur over the past three years.  When combined with National Serv-All’s adjacent mitigated wetlands area and Fox Island County Park, the entire space forms nearly two square miles of natural habitat. Currently, the Project is seeking financial contributions to add 67 acres of land to Arrowhead Prairie. All three preserves need continued stewardship care to ensure future success, but native plants have already returned and wildlife abounds.  A drive along Eagle Road offers a glimpse of great blue herons, mallards and sometimes bald eagles or ospreys at Eagle Marsh.  Tiny surprises emerge too, like the thousands of American toad hatchlings seen in the spring along nature trails at the preserve.

 Such successes do not happen without the careful planning, the support of Little River members, and committed volunteers willing to work long hard hours.  Challenges continue to abound and are being met by thoughtful stewardship to nurture new native plants to continue the effort.  Thus a truly little wetland offers a big experience with a glimpse into the scenery of our own heritage.

Originally published in Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail” – April 2010 No 65

Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail” which is broadcast Mondays on 89.1 fm WBOI; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio 106.3 fm.  Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog “Our Stories” at

Thursday, January 15, 2015

First Churches

by Tom Castaldi

Fort Wayne’s first church buildings reveal interesting stories. The Presbyterians built the first church structure during the years 1836 and 1837. A forty by forty feet frame meetinghouse, it was situated on the south side of Berry Street between Lafayette and Barr streets. The Presbyterian congregation, in 1836, established the town’s first year-long school.

  Inside the walls of the church, five other local religious groups held their initial meetings. That list of early worshipers includes some familiar names: the First Baptist Church constituted in 1837; Episcopalians in 1839; St. John’s German Reformed congregation founded in 1843; the Methodist North Indiana Conference organized in 1844; the Trinity English Lutheran Church held its first services there in 1846.  When the county courthouse was deemed too unsafe in 1842, court was convened in the old forty by forty foot church.  The English Lutherans bought the facility in 1846 and installed its original bell in the steeples of its successive buildings.

Trinity English Lutheran c. 1870 from the Randall Estate

During 1846 the English Lutherans separated from the German Lutherans.  The congregation grew slowly, receiving members from among new arrivals from the eastern states as well as American-born children of immigrants and a few Scandinavian Lutherans.  The congregation first worshiped on Sunday afternoons in the First Presbyterian meeting house on Berry Street.  The Presbyterians, in anticipation of moving into a new church, soon sold their fifteen-year old building to the English Lutherans.  When the completion of their new structure was delayed for two years, the Presbyterians were forced to rent their old church from its new Lutheran owners.

Under the leadership of the first full-time ordained minister with pastoral experience, Reverend William Patton Ruthrauff arrived in 1859 and the membership of Trinity English Lutheran doubled. It meant that the parish might now support a larger church.  A lot on the corner of Wayne and Clinton streets was purchased and the cornerstone was laid on July 29, 1863.   By 1864, a gothic-style brick church building was erected.

 In 1868, the Reverend Samuel Wagenhals assumed the pastorate, continuing for fifty-two years, the longest tenure of any Fort Wayne clergyman.  His successor, the Reverend Paul H. Krauss, served the parish for nearly fifty years and led the congregation in the erection of the present facilities on the south side of Wayne Street between Fairfield and Ewing streets.
Designed by B.G. Goodhue, one of the leading architects of the Gothic revival style, the church was dedicated in 1925.  From the steeple still rings the town’s oldest church bell.  Originally installed in the steeple of the First Presbyterian Church, the bell first rang in 1837 both as a call to worship and as the town’s “fire alarm.”

In the autumn of 1995 through the spring of 1996, the congregation celebrated its 150th anniversary.

Originally published in Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – March 2010 No. 64.
  Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail” which is broadcast Mondays on 89.1 fm WBOI; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio 106.3 fm.  Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog “Our Stories” at

Monday, January 12, 2015

What this Country Needs is a Good Five Cent Cigar

by Carmen Doyle

“What this country needs is a good five cent cigar” may be the most famous line ever spoken by Thomas R. Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President. Another Vice President no one ever heard of,  Marshall was known for his wit, but he had a hard time working under Wilson, who was known for his quick intelligence. Marshall had down home humor. Wilson had political wit.

Marshall was from Columbia City and rose to Indiana governor before being selected as the vice presidential candidate.  Marshall considered himself a progressive and Indiana was an important swing state for Democrats at the time. (Yes, Indiana at one point was Democratic!) He and Wilson did not see eye to eye. Marshall was considered conservative by many in D.C., known for his folksy stories and humor and not his political acumen. The Vice-President has really has only one duty- to be ready to be President. Otherwise, he does whatever the President doesn’t want to do. (Wilson had previously expressed his opinion of the Vice-Presidency, saying that the Vice President’s only importance is that he might cease being Vice President.)

Marshall originally did not want to be Vice President; he only took it at his wife’s request. Marshall felt that the salary was too small--the Vice-President made six times less than the President and had to provide his own housing, as well as his own staff. He was provided with a car, but he had to supply his own gas and tires. Wilson was idealistic and outgoing, everything Marshall was not. Wilson broke tradition by addressing Congress himself, being his own lobbyist. (The majority of Presidents before this had used the Vice President as a go-between.) Marshall was kept out of the loop and was aware that Wilson may not have liked him much. (Marshall once gave Wilson a book inscribed “from your only vice.”)  Marshall was also aware that Wilson would not give any of Marshall’s ideas merit. Marshall was mainly relegated to playing host to various foreign diplomats that Wilson did not want to meet.

When Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919, leaving him incapacitated, Marshall refused to take over the Presidency.  (The Twenty-fifth Amendment, which allows the Vice President to assume Presidential duties when the President is unable, was not passed until decades years later.) Marshall was also kept uninformed about Wilson’s health, and was the victim of a hoax in which he was told that Wilson had died. But when Marshall went to the White House to see what his next step should be, he found that Wilson was still alive. (It’s believed that many of the Presidential decisions made during this time may have been made by First Lady Edith Wilson, who did not like Marshall.) 

Perhaps the best example of Marshall’s humor and the view of the Vice-Presidency is his statement that, “There were two brothers. One ran away to sea, the other was elected Vice-President, and nothing was ever heard of either of them again.”