by Tom Castaldi
Headwaters Park was created by the citizens of Fort Wayne through their donations, ideas and labor as a means of flood control in the city. Earlier designs had a similar purpose. George Kessler’s plan of 1912 envisioned a green space for recreation in the great bend of the St. Mary’s River to absorb springtime floods, as did the park design submitted to the city in 1927 by Robert Hanna. In 1984, the Indiana Department of Transportation also developed a plan for the downtown flood plain.
The earliest of recorded floods in the Three Rivers area occurred in 1790, four years before there was a Fort Wayne, when the Indian settlement of Kekionga suffered from the disastrous combination of a rapid spring thaw and heavy rains. Natives told of storms so great that the floods they created made it possible to pass in their canoes from the Maumee west to the Wabash River near Huntington. In the years before dikes were built, the average flood level was about fourteen feet. When engineers built dikes to protect riverside neighborhoods and businesses, the flood levels rose steadily. By the 1920s, floods were more frequent and the average flood level jumped to nearly twenty feet.
It was in March, 1913 that the worst flood on record sent the Maumee over night from seven feet to over twenty-six feet. After the dikes along the Lakeside neighborhood gave way, fifteen thousand people were made homeless and six people lost their lives. Mayor Jesse Grice organized a heroic relief effort and martial law was declared with orders given to shoot looters. Fort Wayne saved itself then, as it would do again in 1982 when an immense volunteer effort preserved the dikes against the second-highest flood waters on record.
In the wake of these disasters, plans for allowing flood waters to wash across the great bend in the St. Mary’s River assumed increasing importance. At the ground breaking ceremony on October 26, 1993, Headwaters Park was heralded as the premier “lasting legacy” of the Fort Wayne Bicentennial Celebration and a monument to the cooperative efforts of all segments of the “City That Saved Itself.”
On October 22, 1999, the 205th anniversary of Fort Wayne, Governor Frank O’Bannon was on hand with Mayor Paul Helmke and the Headwaters Park Commission for an official dedication. The Commission turned operations of the project over to the city’s park department on January 1, 2000. During that year, the non-profit Headwaters Park Alliance was given fulltime management responsibility for the space by the City of Fort Wayne’s Park Board. In doing so, a public-private arrangement was established bolstering a spirit of individual citizens working together with local government.
Originally published as:
Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi - Apr 2006 No. 21
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 historycenterfw.blogspot.com.