Thursday, April 24, 2014

Horace Rockwell: Artist

by Tom Castaldi

Thanks to Horace Rockwell, the first known itinerant artist to visit and make a living in Fort Wayne, we have the Samuel Hanna Family portrait in the Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s collection.  An oil painting on canvas, Hanna commissioned Horace Rockwell in 1843 to paint the piece that measures slightly over five feet square.  It depicts the prominent Fort Wayne Hanna family grouped around a table in a conversational setting.  Judge Samuel Hanna was an important pioneer considered to be the father of Fort Wayne and responsible for the community’s development bringing the canal, railroad and roadways to the region.

Black and White Photo of Hanna Family Portrait

Another important Fort Wayne family was painted on even a larger canvas when Rockwell was engaged by Dr. Lewis G. Thomason for a family portrait to include his wife, their five children, as well as his wife’s sister, the widow Elizabeth Forsythe, and her daughter Margaret.  Now a part of the Newark New Jersey Museum, this work is believed to have been painted sometime between 1842 and 1845.

Claiming that he was born in New York on July 7, 1808, very little is known of Horace Rockwell’s early years.  Reports of the day referenced him as being “of Philadelphia,” and an 1835 exhibition catalogue lists a portrait by him in that city.  The same sources write that because he is also listed as being from New York, “he doubtless practiced there too before coming West.”

Although there have been attempts to show a family relationship with the American illustrator Norman Rockwell, one has yet to be discovered to document the claim.  The Allen County History book published in 2005 has a half dozen additional images of his work in addition to the two mentioned above. Many of his paintings were not of the large-size format in the na├»ve portrait manner, such as the three of Aboite Township’s first postmaster and canal inn proprietor, Jesse Vermilyea and his wife Maria.  The Vermilyea portraits were painted about 1840 and are a part of the Allen County Fort Wayne Historical Society’s collection.

While artists working in cities had their own studios, provincial painters were usually itinerants and sometimes lived with the families who patronized them.  Some art historians believe that Rockwell utilized a technique of painting the subjects’ torsos dressed in the appropriate fashion of the day in his studio, packed up his paints and canvas and traveled on location to finish the work of placing the heads with recognizable faces on each.  If that were the case, in order to reach Fort Wayne from the East, Rockwell likely would have had to travel from Lake Erie along the Maumee through the infamous and treacherous Black Swamp.  Rockwell, however, is known to have resided with the Thompson family for about six months while completing their portrait, according to Ann M. Reed in her book My Grandmother and Her Family.

Horace Rockwell settled in Fort Wayne in 1836 and is considered to be the city’s first professional painter.  In the 1850 census he is listed as living in Fort Wayne under the name of Cirael or Carael Rockwell, age 43, born in New York.

At some point Rockwell moved a short distance west to the Wabash & Erie Canal town of Roanoke, where he and his wife Orrinda settled into a house on Posey Hill Street.  He operated a trade sign business and continued his painting such as the one titled, “Rebekah at the Well”, now in the Roanoke Heritage Center’s collection.  Even though Rockwell lived a secluded life style, his wife and daughters were sociable and prominent in their village community.  At times the artist would quietly leave town heading to places such as New York City or Cincinnati where he would exhibit his oil paintings, win art competitions, and sell his pictures at good prices, before returning unobserved to Roanoke.

Rockwell, who dabbled with inventions, was considered by some a man of genius with more than ordinary ability.  When not painting he devoted himself to the construction of a flying machine well before the time of the Wright Brothers.

The house still stands in Roanoke where Rockwell, in about 1852, attempted to fly his contraption designed to mimic bird wings from, some say, his home’s second floor window or his roof.  It is not recorded whether he launched from the front or the rear of his house on Posey Hill Street.  If it were the back side, the topography drops away steeply.  His flight, more vertical than horizontal, ended abruptly at the base of his residence with the operator’s bruised body among the wreckage.  A doctor was summoned to tend his several contusions and broken bones.  His speech not having been hindered, he responded to questions of what went wrong, to which he replied that it wasn’t the fault of the machine but that he, “forgot to flap his wings.”  The flying experience put an end to his experiments and he is reported to have died years later in 1877.

  Orrinda Rockwell could not bear the loss of her husband, so intense was her anguish, that she refused nourishment of any form.  Finally, she was persuaded to eat, but her stomach being in such a weakened condition, proved fatal.  She died shortly thereafter and was laid to rest beside Horace in the Roanoke Cemetery.

Originally published in Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” 
 Mar 2009 No. 52

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

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Cathedral

by Tom Castaldi

A visitor to downtown Fort Wayne would be hard pressed to miss noticing the tall twin cross-topped steeples of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Church that helps shape the city’s skyline.  On closer examination the same visitor might also read the historical marker that stands out front that tells the story of this the oldest church structure in continuous use in the Fort Wayne area. It explains that it was during the 1600s when Christianity was carried to this part of the new world by missionaries.

A major portion of the land was first purchased for a church building in 1831 at the urging of the Reverend Stephen T. Badin, who visited this area between 1830 and 1834 as a missionary to Catholic residents.  In 1835, a chapel was being erected on the block now known as Cathedral Square, but the structures did not have a roof when the first resident pastor, the Reverend Louis Muller, arrived the following year.  The small structure measuring 35 by 65 feet was finally completed in 1840 by the Reverend Julian Benoit and dedicated as St. Augustine’s.  One remaining vestige of that first little church is a limestone statue standing just four feet in height in the Square today dating to the year 1837.  Fr. Benoit acquired additional land to the south where he wanted space for a cemetery, and in 1846 he expanded his vision with the building of St. Augustine’s Academy.  It was the first Catholic school in Fort Wayne. Next he busied himself with the construction of a rectory completed in 1854.
Looking north on Calhoun from Lewis Street--Fort Wayne Post Card
When Fort Wayne was named the seat of a newly created diocese in 1857, Benoit immediately proceeded to draw plans and raise funds for a cathedral.  This Gothic style double-spire structure, 80 by 180 feet, cost $63,000.00, of which Benoit personally raised $46,000.00.  In 1859 the old St. Augustine church was moved to the east side of Cathedral Square, facing Clinton Street, but shortly after was lost in a disastrous fire.

On December 8, 1860, Bishop John H. Luers, the first bishop of the diocese, presided over the opening of the finished cathedral, then the largest church in Indiana. During the celebration, on the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, the new structure was dedicated as a place to worship God through the intercession of Mary. High above the main entrance in a niche, still prominent to this day, is a ten foot statue of Mary for whom the Cathedral is named. 

Shortly after its completion the Fort Wayne Daily Times reported, “This magnificent edifice … is one of the finest on the continent and altogether the grandest church structure in the West.”  Rev. Julian Benoit continued to serve as pastor to the French- and English-speaking Catholics in Fort Wayne for 44 years.  Upon his death in 1886, he was interred in the nave of the church.

 In the late 1940s, the cathedral was remodeled, and the original brick exterior was faced with stone.  The core of its walls, however, is the oldest of any church in the area.  A second time the Cathedral was closed in 1998 for seven months to conduct a major restoration and renovation project. Appropriately the remodeling included opening up a space for a greater view of the east window in the apse, which is graced with one of the most beautiful stained-glass images to be found anywhere.  It depicts a scene in the life of Mary the Mother of God and was installed during the years 1896 and 1897.  The windows of the cathedral have been described as the finest of their kind in the western hemisphere.

On the grounds of Cathedral Square is a second marker erected in 1942 by the Mary Penrose Wayne Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It recalls Jean Baptiste De Richardville, who was born in 1761. Richardville served as the chief of the Miamis who knew him as Pechewa a name that means “Wildcat.” He was known by his fellow Miamis for his courage and business abilities.   When he died in 1841, he was buried near the base of the old St. Augustine Church. 
Chief Richardville Marker in Catholic Cemetery on  Lake Sreet

A visitor to Fort Wayne scanning the skyline notices the defining shape of the twin spires.  As the two steeples high above form an outline, directly ahead, the viewer gazes upon the land that helped form Fort Wayne history.

Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – Dec 2009 No. 61

Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which usually airs 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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fort Wayne's Worst Train Wreck

by Nancy McCammon-Hansen

There’s nothing like an accident to bring out the gawkers and that certainly was true when Fort Wayne’s worst train wreck within the city limits occurred on August 13, 1911.

A speeding Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train, trying to make up for lost time, crashed into a freight train in Swinney Park. Three railroad workers were killed and 35 passengers and other crew members injured. (Some reports say four were killed and 30 injured.) The train was reportedly going about 50 miles an hour, traveling from Chicago to New York, when it left the track at a switch around 6:30 p.m. and crashed into the freight train. Two engines were pulling the passenger train and as they left the rails, they sideswiped the engine of the freight train.

“The baggage car, smoker, buffet, and two sleepers turned over in the ditch. Most of the injured were seated in the diner and smoker when the accident occurred,” according to the website Fortunately for the passengers, the train was composed of all-steel cars that survived the crash far better than “old-fashioned wood construction”. The engines of the passenger train were thrown down an embankment and the freight train’s engine “reared up over the trucks of the fliers (sic) engine”.

The information on the website was transcribed from The Washington Post District of Columbia 1911-08-14.

Other information in this blog post comes from Scott M. Bushnell’s book “Historic Photos of Fort Wayne”, which is for sale in our gift shop.

The photos come from postcards in the History Center’s collection.