One of the most important pathways in early Middle America is found here in our region. It passed through the Great Marsh and was known as “The Portage” by the French explorers who recognized it as a strategic part of the most direct water route to the Wabash and Mississippi - supported nicely by a tributary we know today as the Ohio River. The Portage was the only land barrier that stood in the way and connected Quebec with New Orleans by joining the Maumee and Wabash river valleys.
As early as 1701 the English governor of the colony of New York invited the Miami people to trade there. Although some trade may have taken place, the Miami chose instead to strengthen their position on the Maumee-Wabash portage line. In turn, the French were compelled to set up trading and military posts at Kekionga, now Fort Wayne, and Ouiatenon, near present-day Lafayette. The Miami then invited the English to come west to trade, but all did not turn out so well for them. Rather than creating a partnership with both the French and the English, it instigated contention among the two competing European nations, each strategizing for Miami loyalty.
When the first explorers and fur traders came along, the resident Indian population introduced them to the short land bridge separating two important river systems. Historians describe it as being a stretch of land ranging from six to nine miles in length depending on the time of the year that joined the navigable portions of the St. Mary’s River – which helps form the Maumee flowing into Lake Erie – and the Little Wabash River that connects the Mississippi via the Wabash and Ohio rivers. During periods of high water, American Indians spoke of having passed from one river to the other in their canoes, and in fac,t today’s U.S. Highway 24 west generally follows along the passage connecting Fort Wayne with Huntington.
In many ways the land barrier separated an expanding America from a yet to be developed one, which led to the creation of an artificial waterway. In the days of sprawling marshes and wilderness forests, a canal was constructed and boats could be seen gliding along, offering transportation between the Midwest and the Eastern Seaboard. Through this land barrier into the Mississippi River on to the Gulf of Mexico an immigrant route was created that helped start up towns and enlarge old ones.
A gift of geography, this throughway originally was shaped by an ice glacier as it receded some ten thousand years ago, establishing a vast marshland. To the east it formed the Black Swamp and Lake Erie. To the west, the Wabash River valley was created. However, the great lake and the state river are not all that marks the great geological event.
For the last ten or so thousand years, the path of the glacier’s melt water that formed the Little Wabash River made a passageway for native peoples and animals alike, beginning as a footpath expanding to cart path, to canal towpath, to rail beds and finally roads and highways. Efforts to drain the Great Marsh began in the late 1800s. After four attempts, the rich bottom land was successfully ditched and drained for farming. Nonetheless, it tended to get too wet during rainy years but some persistent farmers did work the land of the old marsh.
Now after more than twenty years, the non-profit Little River Wetlands Project is restoring wetlands once part of the original 25,000 acre Great Marsh through the work of a dedicated board, staff, and volunteers. A group of citizens began the project in 1990, concerned with the knowledge that 85% of Indiana’s original wetlands had been lost. In Allen County the disappearance of wetlands meant the local rivers were more prone to flooding and native wildlife was at risk due to habitat loss. The organization’s founders soon identified the Little Wabash River Valley not fully built up with home and commercial structures still had land available for wetlands restoration and protection.
As the Little River Wetlands Project has grown, it has restored three properties to wetlands: Eagle Marsh, Arrowhead Marsh and Arrowhead Prairie. With these preserves and a conservation easement on private land, the organization now protects over 1,000 natural acres in the Little Wabash River valley. Eagle Marsh, the largest preserve at 705 acres, has been slowly returned to its original historical grandeur over the past three years. When combined with National Serv-All’s adjacent mitigated wetlands area and Fox Island County Park, the entire space forms nearly two square miles of natural habitat. Currently, the Project is seeking financial contributions to add 67 acres of land to Arrowhead Prairie. All three preserves need continued stewardship care to ensure future success, but native plants have already returned and wildlife abounds. A drive along Eagle Road offers a glimpse of great blue herons, mallards and sometimes bald eagles or ospreys at Eagle Marsh. Tiny surprises emerge too, like the thousands of American toad hatchlings seen in the spring along nature trails at the preserve.
Such successes do not happen without the careful planning, the support of Little River members, and committed volunteers willing to work long hard hours. Challenges continue to abound and are being met by thoughtful stewardship to nurture new native plants to continue the effort. Thus a truly little wetland offers a big experience with a glimpse into the scenery of our own heritage.
Originally published in Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail” – April 2010 No 65
Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail” which is broadcast Mondays on 89.1 fm WBOI; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio 106.3 fm. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog “Our Stories” at historycenterfw.blogspot.com.