Monday, June 10, 2013

The Beginnings of the Portage to the Wabash River

by Tom Castaldi

One of the principal reasons there is a community in Fort Wayne today is the “portage.”  Not far from our Indiana city, to the west across the river, was the eastern entrance to this important feature.

The portage, a French term for “carrying place,” denotes the route where early travelers carried their canoes from one river over to another.  At Fort Wayne the portage connects the Saint Mary’s River and the Maumee Valley to the Wabash River and the Ohio and Mississippi rivers beyond.  It is the only place where travelers by boat had to go overland when making their way from the Great Lakes to the great western rivers leading to the Gulf of Mexico.

The eastern terminus of the portage was located in today’s West Swinney Park where there were many campsites.  The portage route followed the high ground away from the St. Mary’s River, along Portage Boulevard and through the Fort Wayne County Club grounds, southwest past Fox Island Park to a site near Ellison Road in today’s Aboite Township, where the Little Wabash River begins to make its way to the Wabash.

Usually the route was about nine miles long.  Often after the spring floods, however, there would be water all the way to the Wabash; during drought the carrying distance might be as long as twenty-five miles.  The portage was well marked by paths and wagon tracks and was elaborately developed with bridges and causeways to help travelers in the crossing, although there were frequent complaints about beavers damming the Little Wabash River.

The portage made the Miami wealthy, for the tribe levied a charge on those who used it.  Even in the earliest accounts from the 1690s, the portage was referred to by the French as a “Toll Road Swamp.” Through their control of the portage, the Miami enjoyed power and prestige in the region.  They also attracted attention, first from the French and the English who sought to dominate the Indians through their influence, and then from the Americans, who sought to conquer the area and establish their own control over the vital crossroads.

The importance of the portage declined sharply with the coming of the Wabash and Erie Canal in the 1830s.  By the time of the Civil War, it was little more than a trail through the western marshes of the country; and with the great drainage projects of the 1890s, it virtually disappeared, leaving behind the community to which it gave birth.

 Originally published in Fort Wayne Magazine, “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – June 2005 No 13, p. 37
For a map of the portage, please see:

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