(Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – July 2011, No. 80)
West of downtown Fort Wayne at the north end of Thieme Drive on the east bank of the Saint Mary’s River stands a barely noticeable river overlook. It is easily accessed near the southeast corner of the Main Street Bridge. Thieme Drive took its name in 1911 from the founder of the Wayne Knitting Mills. In the late 1800s, the Mills employed hundreds and became famous across America for its “Wayne Knit” line of fine hosiery. Each day, Theodore F. Thieme, founder of the mill operations walked from his home on the corner of Rockhill and Berry streets crossing over the Main Street Bridge west to his office.
Authors James M. Schaab and Angus C. McCoy both writers of how the streets of Fort Wayne were named, say that Mr. Thieme was troubled by the sight of debris along the bank of the Saint Mary’s River. Moved to institute a city wide waterway bank improvement project, Thieme decided to improve a small section along the river he passed each day. He had the rubble cleared away and the difference was so noticeable that he decided to expand the beautification effort. Loads of fill dirt were brought in and a concrete retaining wall added. When workers had finished, a small park-like overlook had been created.
On August 19, 1911 a plaque was dedicated featuring two half reclining female figures, one depicting “Nature Sleeping” and the other “Natural Beauty Awakened.” Words on the plaque memorialize the “Fort Wayne Civic Improvement Association as a testimonial of appreciation by citizens of Fort Wayne of the generosity of Theodore F. Thieme who erected the work to awakening of a new civic spirit and the beginning of a general scheme of River Improvement. Dedicated 1911.”
From this small overlook a person can reflect on a sampling of our history: Through this space the way pointed to the only land portage of an otherwise all-water route connecting the Maumee River and Wabash River valleys known to the American Indian peoples for generations. Europeans soon learned about the carrying place that some dubbed the, “Indian Appian Way.” It was being used to connect the lower French posts on the Mississippi with their sites on the Saint Lawrence River. As early as 1699 Pierre le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville (1661-1706) a French soldier and adventurer, passed over the portage leading a colony of Canadians from Quebec to Louisiana. Look for Iberville Street named in his memory next time you are in the New Orleans French Quarter.
To the north, remnants of the great Wabash & Erie Canal’s Saint Mary’s aqueduct still can be seen. The aqueduct was a 160 feet long water-filled trunk that passed floating commerce between America’s Eastern Seaboard and to the Mississippi River valley markets.
Across the way to the east, and related to canal lore, is Fort Wayne’s smallest park. Marked by a statue of two young boys, it recalls the Aqueduct Club formed in 1912 in memory of those who made the canal aqueduct their swimming hole. Southwest of the statue easily viewed from the overlook is the girlhood home of the legendary Hollywood star Carole Lombard. Born Jane Alice Peters in 1908 in Fort Wayne, she achieved film fame and was married to Clark Gable at the time she tragically lost her life in a plane crash while on a tour selling War Bonds during World War II.
South on Thieme Drive once stood the old Methodist College founded in 1846. Today the spot is marked with a plaque on a large stone standing between the street and the river. Over on the west bank of the river is Camp Allen Drive which leads to a park that was once the site where young recruits rendezvoused at the behest of Abe Lincoln before marching off to contest a Civil War.
The Main Street Bridge that spans the Saint Mary’s is where once the myth of “The woman in white: could be observed walking across the bridge at night and when greeting her some reported she would vanish before their very eyes. This is the same bridge that points the way west to the Nebraska neighborhood. During the canal era, merchant A.C. Hutzell opened a store on what was then a country road. So far west of the Saint Mary’s River, locals joked that Hutzell had moved out west to Nebraska. Not a man to let some unexpected opportunity for notoriety slip away, he promptly named his place the “Nebraska Store.” The name spread over the entire neighborhood that grew up along the canal basin.
Over the years the overlook slowly fell into a state of disrepair and suffered vandalism. The plaque survived and caught the notice of the West Central Neighborhood Association people who with the cooperation of the City Redevelopment Commission restored it in 1987. The overlook may be barely noticeable in our faster paced lifestyle, but it’s a pleasant place to stop and reflect on the wide range of the heritage we share in this community.
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.