Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Thomas Edison in Fort Wayne

(“Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – Jul 2014, No. 115)

Thomas Edison in Fort Wayne
Tom Castaldi

Downtown Fort Wayne offers surprising history.  The Landing on the western end of Columbia Street holds a cluster of structures from the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries which were once at the center of Fort Wayne.  It was designated an historic district in 1965 and saved from the general dismantling of the rest of Columbia Street. In 1994, the Landing was recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.  

The old street began as an unplanned trace that led westward from the U. S. fort at the confluence of the Saint Joseph and Saint Mary’s rivers and eventually led travelers to the beginnings of the portage to the Wabash River. When the Wabash Erie Canal came along, it became the landing place or depot for disembarking and loading of both passengers and cargo which encouraged economic development in the region.
On Columbia Street at the age of seventeen, Thomas Edison is said to have arrived in the summer of 1864 to work as a telegraph operator. A demand for these facilitators of nineteenth century communications increased during the Civil War years. It was here that Edison found a position in Fort Wayne as an itinerate telegrapher working for the Wabash Railroad Company. Unfortunately the building in which he worked was raised in 1980.

Historian John Ankenbruck noted that Thomas Alva Edison came to Fort Wayne from Port Huron, Michigan and took a room in a three-story brick building at the northwest corner of Columbia and Calhoun Streets. He is also believed to have lived at rooms a block east at Clinton and Columbia. It should be noted that others question if anyone knows for sure where Edison worked and lived while in Fort Wayne since his employer was the Wabash Railroad Company. If so a workplace near Baker Street may be more to the nature of the efficiency of a genius’ thinking.  Edison wasn’t in town too long and in less than a year moved to Indianapolis with Western Union Telegraph Company and still later to Louisville, Kentucky.

Thomas was born on February 11, 1847, about a three hour drive east of Fort Wayne in Milan, Ohio.  Robert D. Parker writing for a July 1978 Fort Wayne publication noted that Edison’s formal schooling lasted a mere three months. However, he had the advantage of being home schooled by his school teacher mother who was convinced Tom deserved better than the school’s rating that had him placed at the bottom of his class. During his younger years, Tom bought a small printing press and working with the telegraphers used it to publish The Weekly Herald to cover events in the towns on the Grand Trunk Railroad line between Detroit and Port Huron.  At age twelve, riding the rails selling Detroit newspapers, he also printed and distributed news for the small communities not covered by the big city publishers.

Edison became interested in electricity while spending time in and out of telegraph offices. With a neighbor friend, he stretched a wire between their houses.  Using crude homemade keys, along with the purchase of batteries for powering their devices, the two became proficient with messaging to one another.  Meanwhile, in gratitude for having rescued a boy from a certain rail fatality, the saved lad’s station agent father, offered to teach Tom railroad telegraphy.  At age fifteen Tom already knew Morse Code and soon landed a job as the telegrapher in the Port Huron office.

Thomas Edison is the holder of 1,093 patents many of which have made their way into our everyday expectations. The more recognizable developments are those that emerged from the incandescent light bulb, phonograph cylinder, carbon microphone, movie camera, electric power distribution to mention a few.  Thomas Alva Edison passed away on October 31, 1931, was buried in Rosedale Cemetery in Orange, New Jersey. However, in 1963 his remains were reburied in the Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey.

Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi  and retired Essex Vice President, is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; a contributing writer  for Fort Wayne Monthly magazine; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast Mondays on Northeast Indiana Public Radio WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio 106.3 FM Fort Wayne and 95.7FM South Bend.


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