The great expanse of the main post office once formed the central part of a large railroad operation commonly called the Pennsy Shops. These locomotive and railroad car shops extended east nearly three miles along the present-day Conrail tracks on the south side of the city.
For nearly half a century, from the Civil War until just past 1900, Fort Wayne was one of the most important railroad centers in the nation.
What made Fort Wayne a railroad center was the complex of shops where locomotives and cars were designed, built, tested and repaired or overhauled.
Here also labored hundreds of craftsmen who built some of the most luxurious passenger cars in the nation. The shops themselves were the central feature of all this activity.
Even before a train had ever been seen in Fort Wayne, Samuel Hanna in 1852 donated a parcel of land east of Clinton for the anticipated railroad shops. In 1853, John and Charles Cooper set up a blacksmith’s shop nearby, and in the next year Kentuckian Sion Bass bought the operation, only to sell it in 1857 to the newly formed Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad (later the Pennsylvania Railroad).
This was the beginning of the Pennsy Shops. The shops grew rapidly, especially with the demands of the Civil War; in concert with the Bass Foundry located across the street, the railroad ships provided critical material help to the Union war effort.
After the Civil War, railways across the nation expanded greatly, and the demand for better engines and cars redoubled. In Fort Wayne the basic design of the Pullman Car was refined to produce the “Fort Wayne Silver Place Car.” Between 1867 and 1869, seven of these cars were built in Fort Wayne and at a (then) staggering cost of $18,000 each.
Fort Wayne ceased to make locomotives after World War I, and much of the work at the Pennsy Shops was given to repair and overhaul. When locomotive rebuilding in Fort Wayne ended in 1933, the shops continued to build passenger cars. Still, the shops declined sharply after World War II.
Finally, in 1953 the last of the railroad operations closed, and by 1966 all the property had been abandoned; the roundhouse, the last vestige of the Pennsy Shops, was razed in 1984.
Originally published in Fort Wayne Magazine “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – March 2007 No 30.
Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast at 6:35 a.m., 8:35 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on WLYV-1450 AM and WRRO 89.9 FM. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at history centerfw.blogspot.com.