Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Park at the Headwaters

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 Saint 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.

George Kessler

The earliest recorded flood 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. In the years before dikes were built, the average flood level was about fourteen feet, but after engineers built dikes, to protect riverside neighborhoods and businesses, the flood levels rose steadily.

Dam on the St. Joseph River


By the 1920s floods were more frequent and the average flood level jumped to nearly twenty feet. The worst flood on record was in March 1913, when the Maumee rose overnight from seven feet to over twenty-six feet. The dikes along the Lakeside neighborhood gave way. In the end, 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. 

Maumee River from Main Street Bridge

St. Mary's River from Spy Run Avenue Bridge
In the wake of these disasters, plans for allowing flood waters to wash across the bend in the Saint 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.”

Map of Headwaters Park c. 2006

Governor Frank O’Bannon was on hand on October 22, 1999, for the 205th anniversary of Fort Wayne to help dedicate the park,. On January 1, 2000, the Headwaters Park Commission turned operations of the project over to the city’s Park’s Department.  Later that same year, the non profit Headwaters Park Alliance was given full-time 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.

Today, Headwaters Park has become the place where people come together for festivals, concerts and other special activities. Ice skating attracts the young at heart in the cooler months and children play in a dancing waters fountain in the warm summer days. Here too stand fourteen Heritage Trail markers that celebrate the headwaters where people have gathered for centuries.

Originally published in Fort Wayne Magazine “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – August 2008  No. 45
 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  

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