Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Cathedral

by Tom Castaldi

A visitor to downtown Fort Wayne would be hard pressed to miss noticing the tall twin cross-topped steeples of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Church that helps shape the city’s skyline.  On closer examination the same visitor might also read the historical marker that stands out front that tells the story of this the oldest church structure in continuous use in the Fort Wayne area. It explains that it was during the 1600s when Christianity was carried to this part of the new world by missionaries.

A major portion of the land was first purchased for a church building in 1831 at the urging of the Reverend Stephen T. Badin, who visited this area between 1830 and 1834 as a missionary to Catholic residents.  In 1835, a chapel was being erected on the block now known as Cathedral Square, but the structures did not have a roof when the first resident pastor, the Reverend Louis Muller, arrived the following year.  The small structure measuring 35 by 65 feet was finally completed in 1840 by the Reverend Julian Benoit and dedicated as St. Augustine’s.  One remaining vestige of that first little church is a limestone statue standing just four feet in height in the Square today dating to the year 1837.  Fr. Benoit acquired additional land to the south where he wanted space for a cemetery, and in 1846 he expanded his vision with the building of St. Augustine’s Academy.  It was the first Catholic school in Fort Wayne. Next he busied himself with the construction of a rectory completed in 1854.
Looking north on Calhoun from Lewis Street--Fort Wayne Post Card
When Fort Wayne was named the seat of a newly created diocese in 1857, Benoit immediately proceeded to draw plans and raise funds for a cathedral.  This Gothic style double-spire structure, 80 by 180 feet, cost $63,000.00, of which Benoit personally raised $46,000.00.  In 1859 the old St. Augustine church was moved to the east side of Cathedral Square, facing Clinton Street, but shortly after was lost in a disastrous fire.

On December 8, 1860, Bishop John H. Luers, the first bishop of the diocese, presided over the opening of the finished cathedral, then the largest church in Indiana. During the celebration, on the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, the new structure was dedicated as a place to worship God through the intercession of Mary. High above the main entrance in a niche, still prominent to this day, is a ten foot statue of Mary for whom the Cathedral is named. 

Shortly after its completion the Fort Wayne Daily Times reported, “This magnificent edifice … is one of the finest on the continent and altogether the grandest church structure in the West.”  Rev. Julian Benoit continued to serve as pastor to the French- and English-speaking Catholics in Fort Wayne for 44 years.  Upon his death in 1886, he was interred in the nave of the church.

 In the late 1940s, the cathedral was remodeled, and the original brick exterior was faced with stone.  The core of its walls, however, is the oldest of any church in the area.  A second time the Cathedral was closed in 1998 for seven months to conduct a major restoration and renovation project. Appropriately the remodeling included opening up a space for a greater view of the east window in the apse, which is graced with one of the most beautiful stained-glass images to be found anywhere.  It depicts a scene in the life of Mary the Mother of God and was installed during the years 1896 and 1897.  The windows of the cathedral have been described as the finest of their kind in the western hemisphere.

On the grounds of Cathedral Square is a second marker erected in 1942 by the Mary Penrose Wayne Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It recalls Jean Baptiste De Richardville, who was born in 1761. Richardville served as the chief of the Miamis who knew him as Pechewa a name that means “Wildcat.” He was known by his fellow Miamis for his courage and business abilities.   When he died in 1841, he was buried near the base of the old St. Augustine Church. 
Chief Richardville Marker in Catholic Cemetery on  Lake Sreet

A visitor to Fort Wayne scanning the skyline notices the defining shape of the twin spires.  As the two steeples high above form an outline, directly ahead, the viewer gazes upon the land that helped form Fort Wayne history.

Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – Dec 2009 No. 61

Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which usually airs 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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fort Wayne's Worst Train Wreck

by Nancy McCammon-Hansen

There’s nothing like an accident to bring out the gawkers and that certainly was true when Fort Wayne’s worst train wreck within the city limits occurred on August 13, 1911.

A speeding Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train, trying to make up for lost time, crashed into a freight train in Swinney Park. Three railroad workers were killed and 35 passengers and other crew members injured. (Some reports say four were killed and 30 injured.) The train was reportedly going about 50 miles an hour, traveling from Chicago to New York, when it left the track at a switch around 6:30 p.m. and crashed into the freight train. Two engines were pulling the passenger train and as they left the rails, they sideswiped the engine of the freight train.

“The baggage car, smoker, buffet, and two sleepers turned over in the ditch. Most of the injured were seated in the diner and smoker when the accident occurred,” according to the website Fortunately for the passengers, the train was composed of all-steel cars that survived the crash far better than “old-fashioned wood construction”. The engines of the passenger train were thrown down an embankment and the freight train’s engine “reared up over the trucks of the fliers (sic) engine”.

The information on the website was transcribed from The Washington Post District of Columbia 1911-08-14.

Other information in this blog post comes from Scott M. Bushnell’s book “Historic Photos of Fort Wayne”, which is for sale in our gift shop.

The photos come from postcards in the History Center’s collection.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

History Center updating website

We are conducting a usability study in order to improve The History Center Website and we are looking for participants that can help us with this activity.

This is NOT a test of participant's cognitive abilities and there are no right or wrong solutions. Each individual approach provides insight into what options are available and often there are as many result sets as the participants.

If you would like to participate and help us improve our website, please select the link below and follow the instructions.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Canal House

by Tom Castaldi

In 1852, John Brown, a stonemason, built this rare remaining vestige of an early era in Fort Wayne.  Brown, a native of Glascow, Scotland, came to Allen County by canal in 1847 with his wife Mary.  He and his Scottish business partner, James Humphrey, were contractors for such area projects as canal locks, the county jail and the Barr Street Market.

You can see this structure at 114 East Superior Street

Fort Wayne was called the “Summit City” in those days because it marked the highest elevation on the Wabash & Erie Canal, and was a major town that attracted many immigrants. In 1862, Brown sold the “Canal House” to Heinrich Drover, a German immigrant and canal boat captain who in later years served on the Fort Wayne City Council.  Drover used the facility to warehouse spokes he manufactured.  As the canal’s operations came to a close, the upstairs of the building was used as an apartment.

It became the home of Minnie Homeyer whose father William Homeyer worked on the canal boat captained by his Uncle Fred Brase.  Minnie Homeyer married and became Minnie Stemmler. Relating her experiences while riding the boat with her father between Fort Wayne and Huntington, Homeyer said that mules walked along the towpath beside the canal pulling the boat and that an extra mule was always carried aboard the boat in case one got tired.  Her father, who served as town marshal, had a famous friend and she remembered clearly the evening Wild Bill Hickock visited their home on Superior Street.

During the 1870s, in the last years of the canal, the Canal House was home to several successive German families, all of whom also worked on the canal. Later, the Nickel Plate Railroad used the house for storage.

As a project of the national Bicentennial of 1976, this interesting nineteenth century limestone building at114 East Superior Street most recently served as the central offices of Arts United of Greater Fort Wayne.

This article originally appeared in

Fort Wayne Magazine “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – Dec 2007 No. 38

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