Thursday, October 16, 2014

William Fleming Helped Open the Way for Fort Wayne

by Tom Castaldi

When 1874 came around, the Wabash & Erie Canal did not reopen on schedule with many of its mechanical structures in dire need of repair. In the previous year it was no longer possible to travel the entire length of the line and a court decree that year ordered that the canal to be sold beginning February 12, 1876. Twelve days later an auction took place and on March 29, 1876, Trustee Thomas Dowling sold the entire canal. A deed was conveyed to William Fleming of Fort Wayne for the bed of the old waterway from the western edge of Lafayette, Indiana to the Indiana-Ohio line for which $85,000 was paid.

William Fleming photo from History Center archives

William Fleming was born in 1828 in Wicklow, Ireland, entered national school and by age fourteen was sent to finish his academic work in Dublin. In 1848, William came to America via Quebec with his parents Luke and Sarah Holt Fleming. After they reached Canada, his father and four of his siblings became ill, perhaps of typhus or the cholera epidemic, and died during the quarantine time while tied up in the harbor at Quebec.

Sarah Holt Fleming brought William and his three surviving brothers to Fort Wayne. After his arrival, William taught school and worked as a stonecutter along with other employment until he took a position as deputy sheriff under Richard McMullen. When Sheriff McMullen died, Fleming assumed the position. He became interested in politics and Fleming served twice in that office as a Democrat.

He married Ann McLaughlin in January 1850, but in 1854 Ann died. His second marriage on July 7, 1859 was to Helen F. Mayer whose father George operated Fort Wayne’s Mayer House hotel. Fleming and his wife moved to a home that stood on the southwest corner of Rockhill and Berry streets. A three-story structure, it is believed to originally have been built by William Rockhill in 1857.

A man of many accomplishments, Fleming was the founder of the New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad, which became the Nickel Plate Railroad. Later he helped bring it to Fort Wayne and served on its board of directors until the railroad was sold to the Vanderbilt people. He served as Treasurer of the Indiana School Book Company; President of the Salamonie Mining and Gas Company; Vice President and Acting President of the First National Bank of Fort Wayne; President of the Hartford City Paper Company, as well as a stockholder and director of several other businesses.

Publishing was another interest. In 1873, W.H. Dills and I.W. Campbell had merged the Fort Wayne Daily Sentinel with Campbell’s Fort Wayne The Times forming the Times and Sentinel. On January 15, 1866, they sold the paper to E. Zimmerman and Eli Brown who changed the name to The Democrat. Several others directed The Democrat, and in 1873, R.D. Dumm and William Fleming took control and restored the name to its former The Sentinel that S.V.B. Noel and Thomas Tiger had given it when they first started the paper on July 6, 1833. Six men underwrote the business risk: Henry Rudisill, Lewis G. Thompson, Joseph Holman, E. Ewing, Allen Hamilton and Frances Comparet. In 1874, The Sentinel Publishing Company was organized to manage the business. William Fleming purchased The Sentinel in 1877 and became its sole owner until April 16, 1879, when he sold to William Rockhill Nelson and Samuel E. Morss. In 2009 the News-Sentinel, a direct descendant of The Sentinel, continues to publish a daily newspaper. (note that this post was originally published in 2009)

Elected City Clerk, Fleming served for eight years until 1878 when he became Indiana State Treasurer. However, he lost his bid for reelection in 1880 when the balance of the ticket went down in defeat. Fleming regularly counseled his party and was often a delegate to the Democrat National Convention.

William Fleming died on January 13, 1890. Remembered as having been industrious, enterprising, and one of the wealthy men of the state, he was also known to have been a true and faithful member of his church, rendering it faithful service and substantial financial support. Throughout his life he made friends easily with a warm and genial nature. He possessed many estimable qualities of character and left his impression on his adopted city, state and country. William Fleming is to be remembered as the man who bought the canal and opened the path for the improved technology of steam railroading.

Originally published in Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi”
 September 2009 No. 58

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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