by Tom Castaldi
West Central Neighborhood once consisted of the entire region west of the original plat of Fort Wayne and considered by the first settlers as second-rate land. Not surprising, since it was virtually a wetland fed by two creeks that ran through its length. One was “Shawnee Run” that rose in the south near the present-day U.S. Post Office at the old Bass Foundry and ran west along Baker Street then turned north just beyond Harrison Street. One pioneer recalled fishing from “Shawnee Run” bridge that once stood on Wayne Street to span the Creek.
Another much larger stream, called “Bloody Run” had its source in the wide swamp that covered the land where the present-day General Electric plant stands. The creek took its name from a story that a Miami warrior stabbed and killed a Shawnee man in 1800. It was Chief Richardville who interceded in the situation and prevented a blood feud between the Miami and the Shawnee. “Bloody Run” eventually joined “Shawnee Run” and the two emptied into the Saint Mary’s River.
“That village of swamps” was how William Ewing described it when he bought a portion of it in the 1820s. He was including his own home that at the time stood in the 500 block on West Berry Street. All has changed with this grand neighborhood which is often described today as being within the borders of South Calhoun Street on the east, the Saint Mary’s River on the west and north, Taylor Street east to the Norfolk and Western Railroad, then east to South Calhoun Street.
During the canal era of the 1830s and through the 1950’s drainage projects, both improvements played a role in purging the swamps. Fort Wayne began to prosper and the west side became more attractive as a place to live and businesses too found it a good place to locate. Perhaps one of the most significant was Rockhill House that was constructed in 1838-1840. With careful consideration given this grand building signaled what was to follow. Although it was considered far from the center of town, the hotel operators gave it the air of a fine country estate attempting to attract canal packet travelers. When rail service began, a special ornate coach engaged to bring visitors, such as presidential candidate Stephan A. Douglas, from the downtown train stations to their “country quarters.”
|The Swinney House|
At about the same time, pioneer Thomas Swinney built his Federalist style home at its western edge along the Saint Mary’s River. Following that stream to the north stood the Methodist College for Women. The celebrated pioneer banker, Hugh McCulloch, built his great Greek Revival mansion near the site of the first French fort along the Saint Mary’s. The west end addresses became increasingly fashionable as more of the impressive street names and their house numbers became those of the town’s emerging merchant and professional set.
At the beginning of the twentieth century and throughout the decades before World War II, the West Central neighborhood was the home of wide tree-shaded boulevards and grand mansions and fine homes. In later years, many of these places became the names of Fort Wayne’s first arts and cultural organizations, such as the Historical Society in the Swinney Home or the Museum of Art in the Mossman mansion.
After World War II, the public began to experience a lack of interest in these fine but now outdated buildings. Expansion, parking lots, renovations, modernization and aluminum siding became the order of the day. Unique and grand buildings like the Ewing House were razed. In the 1960s, however, an interest to save these structures emerged, and by 1976, the newly formed architectural preservation society, ARCH, was formed and began to advocate preservation and rehabilitation as an alternative to destruction and harmful cover-up. Today the West Central historic district is a model for preservation, conservation, rehabilitation, and creative renovation.
In 1976, the West Central Neighborhood won designation as Fort Wayne’s first locally designated “Historic District” and 1984 the area was listed on the national Register of Historic Places. Protected by city, state, and national ordinances against changes detrimental to the historic character of the neighborhood, the West Central region has experienced a revival of its former grandeur with its fine homes, beautiful churches, and solid commercial buildings. What was once called a village of swamps, has become a place of pride.
|Many historic churches are in the West Central Neighborhood.|
Originally published in Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi”
July 2009 No. 56
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.