by Tom Castaldi
The Wells Street Bridge is the only remaining iron truss bridge in Fort Wayne. It was built in 1884 by the Canton Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio. More technically it is described by experts as a Whipple through truss designed and built by the Wrought Iron Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio. It is unusually heavy, well decorated, with wooden floor beams." It features diagonals and counters that extend across two panels rather than being contained in just one. It was a favorite bridge design for the longest spans built in Indiana in the 1880s and 1890s.
|The Wells Street Bridge in the late 1890s.|
The first bridge to cross the Saint Mary’s River at this point was a wooden one. It was replaced in 1859 by the first iron bridge built in Allen County, constructed by Mosley and Company of Cincinnati, Ohio. This bridge collapsed a year later under the weight of a large herd of cattle, many of which drowned in the river. Its iron parts remained buried under the bank of the river for years. In 1860, the bridge was rebuilt as an iron and wood structure on several piers.
The demolition of the 1860 bridge began on July 9, 1884, with specifications calling for the re-use of its timbers in the new bridge. One of the Bridge Commissioners, however, accidentally destroyed the old bridge when he tried to burn off the heavy stringers that were proving too difficult to dislodge. According to the newspapers, "Commissioner Briant was mortified to learn the timbers which he tried so hard to save and utilize were destroyed.”
During the October presidential campaign, Stephen A. Douglas, the Little Giant opposing Republican candidate Abe Lincoln, had made a speech at the Rockhill hotel on Broadway and celebrated with a parade down Main Street for a gala on the banks of the Saint Mary’s River at the Wells Street Bridge. According to historian John Ankenbruck, a great disruption occurred when a large hay wagon broke into the parade, masquerading as a float, with an Abe look-alike on the wagon splitting rails. The Democrats, not to be out done, tossed salt on the berm of the street attracting the oxen pulling the wagon off the parade route. No amount of urging could convince the bovine beast licking the salt to move. That November, Allen County voted unsuccessfully for the Little Giant.
The Wells Street Bridge was completed in November, and the first vehicle to cross over the new structure was the “Republican electioneering carriage.” It took until 1890 before electric trolley lines were laid in the bridge to connect downtown to the Bloomingdale neighborhood area on the north side of the city.
When Transfer Corner was conceived for the various trolley lines to converge, making it more convenient for passengers to board their cars, company officials appealed to the county commissioners for access across the bridge. Until 1887 all street rail traffic had been confined to the city. The commissioners were at first hesitant to allow rails to cross the bridge and the appeal to encourage easy access to the north side finally brought a vote to approve trolley tracts to be built over the Wells Street Bridge.
In 1991 ARCH, the historic preservation organization, created a “Most Endangered List” and added the Well Street Bridge. In 1998 Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation acquired the bridge to be used as part of the Rivergreenway trail system. With the use of funding from a bond issue, the Park Foundation, Fort Wayne Community Foundation, Fort Wayne Redevelopment Commission, and federal transportation enhancement funds, Wells Street Bridge was restored and reopened for pedestrian traffic. The only remaining iron truss bridge in Fort Wayne has been listed on the National register of Historic Places. (p. 411) as a destination point for the various trolley lines to converge making it convenient for passengers to board their cars.
Originally published in Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi”
February 2009 No. 50Allen 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.