(“Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” - Oct 2014, No. 118)
Forming Fort Wayne
Because of the Maumee-Wabash portage was the most direct link between New France in the upper Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, the Three Rivers region was especially important. The most significant geographical feature in the region is the confluence of the Saint Mary’s River and the Saint Joseph River which form the Maumee River. The short distance overland between them, which eventually flows to the Atlantic, and the Wabash system to the west, which in turn flows into the Ohio, the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, came to be the “portage” of choice. A carrying place, it was a strip of land usually described as nine miles in length where travelers could transport their cargoes from one water system to the next.
This was a natural crossroads at the continental divide that first attracted the indigenous people over the course of thousands of years. It later caught the attention of the European explorers and traders and the American pioneer settlers who continued to develop the area as a transportation and communications center.
Miami Chief Little Turtle expressed its importance eloquently at the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 when he called it “that glorious gate…through which all the words of our chiefs had to pass from north to south and from east to west.” At the treaty William Henry Harrison insisted that it remain open for all. Arguably, it’s one of the main reasons the Three Rivers’ villages of Kekionga, Fort Wayne and surrounding communities are located here at all.
Retired Allen County Soil Conservation Officer Dan McCain noted part of the portage story pertains to the glacial times. The subtle differences relate to the fact that the Wabash has been a river much longer than the Maumee even though the St. Joseph and St. Mary’s are essentially the same age as the upper Wabash. An enormous volume of water passed over the continental divide at Fort Wayne when the glacial ice blocked the outlet to the north east and to the Atlantic. It was that flooding action that formed the huge valley that the Little Wabash River and Wabash now occupy. It caused this place to become the preferred portage since it was so well supported by the great valley.
The unique feature of a continental divide brought the rivers together formed at the end of the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago. When the retreating glacier of the Wisconsin Lobe left massive end moraines, or ridges, they deflected the courses of the St. Joseph and the St. Mary's rivers to the west.
The slackwater glacial “Lake Maumee,” which had filled to the brim and overtopped what we know today as the Saint Lawrence Continental Divide, broke thorough a long, low portion of the Fort Wayne Moraine. It sent a vast volume of water flowing into the Little Wabash River, which leads to the Wabash then into the Ohio and finally the Mississippi River.
At the end of the Ice Age Lake Maumee began to recede and halted its flow into the Wabash. Due to silt accumulations and a massive log jam it recaptured the St. Joseph and St. Mary’s rivers into the Maumee system by diverting them to the east. “Lake Maumee” appeared in six distinct lower levels to finally become what we know today as Lake Erie. In the vast flat footprint of Lake Maumee came the two-million acre Great Black Swamp extending in a wedge shape from east of Fort Wayne to the Michigan line and to Toledo thus taking in most of northwestern Ohio.
As the glacial lake gradually receded, the Maumee River formed as a young river and became the principal drainage for the region. For centuries it was the only way through the otherwise impenetrable Great Black Swamp. Completing the Wabash & Erie Canal in Ohio opened the area for transportation and put Indiana in commercial reach of the East Coast.
After the coming of the Canal, the importance of the portage declined in the 1830s and by the time of the Civil War it was little more than a trail through the western marshes of the country. With the great drainage projects of the 1890s, it virtually disappeared leaving behind the community we call Fort Wayne.
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.