Thursday, June 30, 2011

How Fort Wayne Celebrated a July Fourth

July Fourth is a popular day of the year for celebrating in the good ole USA , and in Fort Wayne, Indiana, it has been no exception. Well over a hundred years ago, back in 1835, when the Wabash Erie Canal opened up the thirty-some miles of waterway between Fort Wayne and Huntington, July 4th was the day chosen to make the inaugural float trip.

By 1841 the canal had reached Lafayette, Indiana, then considered the practical head of steamboat navigation on the Wabash River and a significant tributary to the Ohio River. It meant that the canal west of Fort Wayne had bridged a single land barrier that stood in the way of an all-water route connecting the Eastern Seaboard with the West via the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico .

However, the plan was for a much longer, navigable, slack-water canal and the route was extended westward to towns along the line touched by the new interstate waterway. As it did so, July Fourth was the day usually set aside for the opening honors. It happened that way in Wabash, Indiana in 1837, in Logansport, Indiana in 1838, in Delphi, Indiana in 1840 and in 1841 when it got to Lafayette.

East of Fort Wayne it was another story where construction on the canal was at a stand still near the Ohio-Indiana state line. Ohio was having some squabbles, including overcoming a boundary line despite with Michigan, and it took until 1843 before the canal was completed to Lake Erie at Toledo, Ohio.

Back in 1841 the canal had reached Lafayette, where there was access to steamboats on the Wabash River. Until then, it meant that the canal had been landlocked toward the east since there was no navigation much beyond the Indiana - Ohio state line. But, now in 1843, a boat could travel uninterrupted by canal from Lafayette 's landing on the Wabash River to Lake Erie at Toledo...and do so in two days. Goods began flowing into the frontier and Indiana 's produce and products could be shipped to customers in the world's markets. It was an enormous boost in opening up the old West.

On July 4th in 1843, Fort Wayne pulled out all the stops to celebrate Independence Day. It might possibly have been the greatest of July Fourth celebration of them all with a great Grand Opening celebration on "The Summit" ... Fort Wayne 's nickname as the highest point along the canal route. Invitations had been sent out across the nation and many of the country's great personages unable to attend wrote letters of regret, and canal boats arrived in such great numbers that the length of the canal in town was cluttered with traffic.

There was parade said to have been nearly a mile in length that formed on the " Public Square " and marched to the Thomas Swinney farm. Several bands made up the procession providing the rhythm and beat for the marching soldiers representing the Revolution and the War of 1812 proudly displaying the national colors. They were followed by the city's notables along with citizens of Ohio and other states as well as a contingent of Miami Warriors. When they arrived at Swinney's there were hundreds in attendance and reports say that after the bands had played some national airs, the Reverend Mr. Boyd made a fervent and appropriate prayer followed by Hugh McCulloch, Esq., reading of the Declaration of Independence. General Cass, a perspective presidential candidate, delivered an admirable address. Historian Bert Griswold wrote, "The stirring address of General Cass was frequently punctuated by the firing of a cannon, which excited the cheers of the multitude without the range of his voice."

By 1853, a Wabash & Erie Canal boat first reached Evansville on the Ohio River signifying that a packet passenger boat or a freight barge could begin at Toledo, lock-up to Fort Wayne, float across the 16-mile "Summit" level then lock-down on its way to Lafayette continuing on to Evansville and meet an Ohio River steamboat. Naturally, it could make the same trip it in the opposite direction, which it did so for many July Fourths thereafter.

Today, we gave an appropriate link to that Grand Opening Celebration of what became the longest canal in America welcoming visitors at the front door of the History Center in Fort Wayne. You can actually see and touch Commodore Perry's naval cannon, along side the marker that tells of this relic of the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie, and the cannon fired at the dedication of the Wabash & Erie Canal that Fourth of July day in 1843.

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