by Tom Castaldi
Before the 1830s, Fort Wayne and the surrounding countryside depended heavily on the fur trade industry. With the arrival of the Wabash & Erie Canal, Fort Wayne emerged as the hub of a thriving transportation system. Ironically, the canal was instrumental in the construction of the first railways in Fort Wayne, which became a railroading center in the Midwest. In 1852, along the canal at the present-day railroad elevation which boarders the south edge of Headwaters Park at Lafayette Street, the first locomotive was unloaded from a canal flatboat.
Placed on tracks that were laid on Lafayette Street, the steam engine headed to the south side of town where the main line of the new Ohio and Indiana Railroad was due to be built to Crestline, Ohio. Later this became the Pennsylvania Railroad system for which Fort Wayne once again enjoyed the position as a major hub. The tracks remained in place on Lafayette Street until 1857 when a depot, freight house, and other structures located on the canal towpath were transferred to the new locations on the south side of town.
In 1874, a boat on the old canal was becoming a rare sight, even though a few did in fact officially operate over short stretches of water. With the spring of 1875, however, came floods and down the line boats that sank into the muddy bottom often were left to rot away. When railroad competition had reduced the effectiveness of the canal, a circuit court in Chicago ordered the canal sold in 1876 and it was acquired by William Fleming a local newspaper publisher, public office holder and entrepreneur.
Shortly, surveys for a rail line extended north of Fort Wayne were underway, and in 1881, officials of the New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad, known commonly as “The Nickel Plate Road,” purchased the old Wabash & Erie right-of-way through central Fort Wayne. Construction of the railroad on the site of the old canal channel was going strong from 1881 to 1882.
It has been said that New York, Chicago & St. Louis was the only railroad company in the United States built for cash in advance of the issue of stocks and bonds. The subscribers to the founding syndicate agreed to furnish the money in ten percent calls as fast as required. It became possible for the company to build a railroad through a sizable Midwestern city, passing less that two blocks from the county courthouse, without having to raze one building.
While the Nickel Plate put Fort Wayne on another major east-west trunk line, the railroad also divided the city, discouraging growth on the north side. The Journal-Gazette broadcast on its daily masthead: “Why Wait? Let’s Elevate!” and the call to “Elevate the Nickel Plate” became a community issue throughout the first half of the twentieth century.
In 1947 the City of Fort Wayne signed an agreement with the railroad to elevate the tracks, but it was not until 1953 that ground was broke for the project. Temporary tracks were laid and construction of the elevation itself began on August 27, 1954; the project was completed on July 29, 1956, inaugurating an era of expansion to the north of the city. The railroad elevation allowed the north side of the city to develop and grow rapidly. Today, it is a landmark structure between the downtown portion of Fort Wayne and that of Headwaters Park.
This article originally appeared in Fort Wayne Magazine “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – June 2007. 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.