Thursday, July 25, 2013

Samuel Hanna: The Founder of Fort Wayne

 by Tom Castaldi
Of those pioneers who devoted their lives to making the community of Fort Wayne, Indiana viable and prosperous, by far the most outstanding was Samuel Hanna.  He was the first ardent promoter of Fort Wayne, and in several important ways he was its real founder.

In 1797, three years after Anthony Wayne built the place which he would one day lead as its premier citizen, Samuel Hanna was born in Scott County, Kentucky.  His father James took the family to a spot near Dayton, Ohio, in 1804 and there young Sam helped his father and several brothers clear the farm.  He also took on the job of “post rider” to deliver the newspaper by horseback to outlying homesteads and by age 19 he embarked on his first business venture.

Hanna held a job as clerk for a dry good store in Piqua, Ohio in 1816 when he and another young companion bought out the proprietor on a $3,000 note. But the sale turned out to be fraudulent; the inventory of the store was seized by creditors and Hanna was left responsible for the debt with no merchandise to sell in order to satisfy the note.  His partner was a minor and could not be held liable, but Hanna, though also a minor, was determined to pay off his debt. To do so he taught school for a while but was not cut out for this since he himself had little or no schooling.  He attended the 1818 Treaty with the Indians as a sutler, or supplier, to the Indian Agent and this event led Hanna to take up the opportunities offered by the Indian trade.

In 1819, at age 22, Hanna took his trading venture to the primitive settlement at Fort Wayne.  Although the military had withdrawn that very year, the Indian Agency still was in full operation, especially at “annuity time” when the native peoples received their payments from the government for lands they had given up in various treaties.  He built his log store on the spot that later became the northwest corner of Barr and Columbia streets, today just outside the west doors of the Arts United Center in Freimann Square.  Despite the great difficulties getting trade goods up the St. Mary’s or overland, the business flourished and Sam Hanna began to make his mark in the building of the new town of Fort Wayne.

With the formation of Allen County in 1823, Hanna was named the first postmaster, and shortly thereafter he was elected Associate Judge of the Circuit Court.  He later expanded his business to the South Bend area, then newly developing, through a partnership with his son-in-law, Lathrop Taylor, one of the founders of that town.  He also invested as quickly as he could in the lands opening up through the U.S. Land Office sales of former Indian territories.  He later boasted that he could travel to Indianapolis by way of Lafayette and return by Anderson and feed his horse in his own corn crib every night of the journey.

Although successful in his business ventures, it was as a promoter of the pioneer town that Sam Hanna made his biggest mark.  Fearing that the swamp-locked village of Fort Wayne would have great difficulty in attracting settlers (to shop in his store or to buy his parcels of land), Hanna took the lead in developing plank roads in and out of Fort Wayne.  This was the beginning of the Lima Plank Road leading north, the Piqua Plank road (today’s Calhoun Street) leading southeast and the Goshen Plank road to the northwest.

Sam Hanna not only assumed the construction contract for the first plank road – the Lima Plank Road – he also personally supervised the work and on more than one occasion was found by friends wielding an axe himself working on the roadbed. But the plank roads were clearly not enough and Hanna soon worked out a scheme with a business colleague named Henry Burr that envisioned a canal connecting Lake Erie to the Ohio River.  This man-made waterway would not only be the longest ever built in North America, but it would be critical for the survival of the town of Fort Wayne.  Having been elected to the state legislature, Hanna worked tirelessly to introduce and see passed the necessary legislation that would provide for the canal.  He officiated at the ground-breaking ceremony on February 22, 1832.  Eleven yeas later, he was among the proud participants in the grand opening celebration held in Fort Wayne on July 4, 1843.

It soon became clear in the early 1850s that the canal would not produce the levels of transportation that Fort Wayne would need to thrive.  In addition, the new technology of the railroad threatened to bypass Fort Wayne unless aggressive action was taken by area leaders to ensure that the steel lines making their way west from Pittsburgh to Chicago passed through the Three Rivers.  To see that this happened, Sam Hanna embarked on his most ambitious and important enterprise and became the founder of the great Fort Wayne railroading industry.

When the Pennsylvania and Ohio Railroad reached Crestline, Ohio, Hanna led a subscription drive in Allen County to provide the capital to the newly formed Ohio and Indiana Railroad to bring the tracks to Fort Wayne.  In 1852, Hanna and his friend Pliny Hoagland undertook the contract for the construction of the line to Fort Wayne, but soon thereafter the entire enterprise faced financial ruin.  The president of the Pennsylvania and Ohio railroad resigned and Hanna was elected in his place; Hanna traveled from Fort Wayne to New York and Philadelphia to Boston and Quebec and Montreal for financing. By 1853 the work was begun again and in 1854 the rail line at last was completed to the Three Rivers, coming in on the south side of town.

The locomotive for this last leg was, ironically, brought in by a canal boat, unloaded at the foot of Lafayette Street and followed the track-laying where the main line came in near Baker Street (by the present-day remains of the old Pennsylvania Railroad Station).  “The town was all a jubilee of feasts” with the completion of this central line that one day would be the central line of many that would “radiate from Fort Wayne like the spokes of a wheel.”

In the succeeding decade the challenge to Sam Hanna and his fellow promoters of Fort Wayne was to see the rail lines connected to Chicago.  Already in 1852, while still dealing with the struggling Ohio and Indiana Railroad, Hanna and his colleagues formed the Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad, with Hanna as its first president.  Neither company had money, but Hanna, as president of each, continued to find resources, including the emerging power of the Pennsylvania Central Railroad.  A solution was at last found for the ailing financial picture in the merger of the eastern and the western railroad enterprises.  Despite considerable opposition to the consolidation, Hanna argued and won his case with the stockholders and executives.  In August, 1856, the two nearly ruined organizations were united into one forming the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad, the ancestor of the great Pennsylvania Railroad.  By 1858 the single line to Chicago was complete, and soon thereafter the north-south line from Cincinnati was completed to Fort Wayne.

The last great effort on Hanna’s part to enrich the community came just before the outbreak of the Civil War when he persuaded the directors of the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad to build their all-important repair and construction shops in Fort Wayne – the great Pennsy shops that for a century dominated the Fort Wayne industrial world.

Thus by the beginning of the Civil War, Sam Hanna had realized his dream of making Fort Wayne a safe and prosperous place for business.  He had without a doubt the most important role of laying out the plank roads that began to conquer the swamps that surrounded Fort Wayne, exercised the leadership in creating the great Wabash and Erie Canal, served the local judicial system as a judge and the state legislative body as a committee chair, was one of the most influential persons behind the advent of the railroad to northern Indiana and was especially instrumental in making Fort Wayne the “Altoona of the West,” then a byword for industrial capacity and stability.

Samuel Hanna built his grand Greek Revival home at 1002 East Lewis Street in 1845.  For many years this was the center of social life on the east side of Fort Wayne.  Hanna died on June 11, 1866 and the city carried out a public funeral.  As the bells in every church tolled, a procession two miles long accompanied his remains to Lindenwood Cemetery and all the principal buildings in Fort Wayne were draped in black.  His daughter, Eliza, and her husband Fred Hayden, a judge and prominent businessman, lived in the mansion after their marriage in 1873. In 1938, it was bequeathed to the Fort Wayne Community Schools, which used it as a school for physically handicapped children until 1962 when the school corporation tore the building down. It was replaced by the Hanna Homestead Park.

You can find more information about Samuel Hanna at: 

This article was originally published in: Fort Wayne Magazine, "Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi", November/December 20005, No. 17, pp 42-43. We thank Fort Wayne Magazine for the use of this material.

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