by Tom Castaldi
Have you noticed that small triangular park at the intersections of Rockhill, Main and Thieme streets? It’s the grassy area east of the St. Mary’s river bridge and home to an interestingly different kind monument. Rather than the usual heroic figure of the warrior on horseback or the proud city founder, this civic statue depicts two barefoot boys who are friends, dressed in coveralls of the 1870s. The stone underneath simply reads: “Let’s Go Swimming.”
This statue was erected in 1927 by the members of a unique Fort Wayne civic group called “The Old Aqueduct Club.” It was a group that celebrated the youthful activities and memories of the bygone era of canals and the covered aqueduct in Fort Wayne that carried the main channel of the Wabash & Erie Canal across the Saint Mary’s River.
The Old Aqueduct Club was formed in 1912 by several citizens who as boys played and swam in the aqueduct that had served the canal and not used for a quarter of a century. The rules of the Club stated that members had to have lived on the west side of Fort Wayne before the 1870s - the end of the canal days – and to have gone swimming in the canal. Each year a dinner meeting was held and by the 1930s there were as many as 500 members who claimed to have met the requirements. By 1955 there were only 11 members left who attended the Club’s 43rd annual dinner, and the Old Aqueduct Club soon passed out of existence.
The little park in which the statue stands today is called Orff Park in recollection of the great water-powered mill that operated in this location by the Orff family during the canal era and later. Orff Mill had several names throughout its history. Sometimes called the “Edsall Mill,” it later was known as the “Empire” and commonly called “the old stone mill” when it stood while the machinery was operated by Wabash and Erie Canal waterpower.
The mill was built by Samuel Edsall in 1843. Milford Smith was an early partner and later the business passed on to Orff, Armstrong & Lacy, but John Orff afterward became the sole proprietor. Later his sons John Jr., C.E. and Montgomery Orff took control of the operation. In its final years the mill was powered by steam. It stood on east bank of the Saint Mary’s river near the “Let’s Go Swimming” statue.
The aqueduct that the Club celebrated was designed by chief engineer Jesse Lynch Williams and was built by Henry Lotz - the only mayor of Fort Wayne ever to have been deposed of by City Council because he seldom appeared to act the part of the mayor in 1843. Saint Mary’s River Aqueduct No. 1 was built in 1835 and rebuilt in 1871. It carried the Wabash & Erie Canal across the Saint Mary’s until 1882. The wooden flume was two spans, each eighty feet in length, seventeen feet wide, four and one-half feet deep and was supported on three great stone pillars. The water of the canal was specified to be at least four feet deep and moved about five miles an hour through the aqueduct, at a weight of more than 450 tons.
A roof was built over the channel, giving it the appearance of a covered bridge. At the west end, just past the aqueduct, a large basin was created so that the canal boats could turn around or wait for another one to pass. It was here in the basin and in the aqueduct itself that the boys often played.
In 1881, the Nickel Plate Railroad purchased the canal right-of-way, including the aqueduct and erected the steel bridge for the trains that still stands today just north of the aqueduct’s location. The aqueduct soon collapsed into the river and was removed in 1883.
You can still see portions of the old structure from the Rivergreenway which is accessible from the west end of the Main Street Bridge. The curved stonewall on the west side of the river is all that is normally visible of the aqueduct. At extreme low water the foundation of the original central pier can sometimes be glimpsed. Nothing is visible on the east bank.
You can discover sights like this and more for yourself, Along the Heritage Trail.
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 centerfw.blogspot.com.