(Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” - Nov 2010, No. 72)
John Henry Bass began an industrial career in Fort Wayne at the young age of seventeen. By 1900, Bass was known as Fort Wayne’s greatest industrialist. His mansion called “Brookside” on the west side of town was the finest residence of its kind in the region. On its grounds was a livestock menagerie including elk, buffalo, huge Clydesdale horses and imported Galoway cattle. Today, the esteemed estate serves as a campus administration building for the University of Saint Francis.
John Bass, born in Salem, Kentucky in 1835, was the son of Ohio Valley settlers from Virginia and North Carolina who had strong sympathies for the South. In 1852, Bass arrived in Fort Wayne with a few dollars to his name, and took a job working as a grocery clerk while studying bookkeeping at night school. He audited books for Samuel and William Edsall during the time they were building the Wabash Railroad from the Ohio Line to the Wabash River. The next year he joined his younger brother Sion Bass in a machine shop operation doing business as Jones, Bass and Company at the site of the present-day post office on South Clinton Street where from 1854 to 1857 John worked as a bookkeeper.
By 1857, John Bass had used his small amount of capital from the machine shop to buy and sell land on the Iowa frontier. When he returned to Fort Wayne, he had $15,000.00 in cash and land holdings worth more than $50,000.00. Jones, Bass and Company was sold to the railroad, marking the beginning of the huge Pennsylvania Railroad Shops. With the profits, the Bass brothers, with Samuel Hanna, started another small foundry and machine business.
While leading his regiment in the opening battles of the Civil war, John’s brother Col. Sion Bass was mortally wounded at the 1862 Battle of Shiloh. That same year, John Bass purchased his partners’ interests in the company and established the Bass Foundry and Machine Works, locating the first plant on the southern side of what was later known as the Pennsylvania Railroad. This company at first specialized in the manufacture of axles and wheels for the railroad, which were used across the tracks in the construction of cars and locomotives at the Pennsy Shops. Because of the war, huge profits came to the Bass Foundry. Within ten years, the company and its affiliates had become the nation’s largest manufacturer of rolling equipment for trains.
Soon after the war ended, Bass married into the respected old southern family of Lightfoot. Laura Lightfoot was a descendant of seventeenth century settlers of Virginia and was closely related to the family of Robert E. Lee, the great Confederate general. Laura was thirteen years younger than John and a resident of Falmouth, Kentucky, near Cincinnati when they met.
Laura and John Bass rose to the top of Fort Wayne society in the four decades after the Civil War.
Bass founded the St. Louis Car Wheel Company in 1869, and in the next two decades, sought to extend his control over his competition by seizing the natural resources that supplied his raw materials for production. So, by 1875, he also owned high-grade iron ore mines in Alabama and Tennessee, and established a major ironworks in Chicago in 1873 taking advantage of the ideal building opportunities following the great Chicago Fire of 1871.
In addition to foundries, machine shops and mines, John Bass was one of a group that purchased the Wabash Erie Canal Saint Joseph River feeder line as a means of conveying water to the city when the topic of waterworks was first considered. He was also one of the organizers of the Fort Wayne Organ Company later known as the Packard Piano Company, and the Citizens Street Railway Company, the first trolley company in Fort Wayne. For thirty years, from 1887 to 1917, Bass was president of the First National Bank of Fort Wayne, a precursor of the Fort Wayne National Bank the present-day PNC Bank.
The center of his fortune, however, was the great Bass Foundry. At its height, the company employed 2,500 workers who produced not only railroad axles and wheels, but also everything from huge steam engines, entire power plants and boilers to vaults and jailhouse doors. When John Bass died in 1922 at his country home of “Brookside,” he was hailed as Fort Wayne’s greatest industrialist.
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.