Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Legend of the Water Panther

(“Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – Mar 2015, No. 123)

Legend of the Water Panther

For several years, residents in rural Allen County have heard rumors of a big cat roaming the countryside. In fact, a News Sentinel article featured a front page story accompanied by a photograph. Even so, those who have encountered the big animal do not need convincing while others remain skeptical.  

News Channel 15 was once presented with a video of what appeared to be a mysterious big cat in nearby Adams County. When the somewhat shaky video was shown to animal experts it was agreed that the image was that of a big cat and could be a cougar or a leopard. Wabash County Chronicle (2010) authors Ron Woodward and Gladys Harvey wrote, “People near Hanging Rock, up and down the (Wabash) river, claim to either hear or see a large cat. Others claim that their dogs act strangely at times as if intimidated by something.”

If such an animal came up missing from a zoo or a licensed dealer, the law requires that the registered animal must be reported. The question remains whether or not all private owners’ always report their missing pets.  Real or perceived, what are the odds the big beast was some other breed and one that once prowled the Midwest countryside?

An Associated Press story in June 2012 recounted that cougars were spreading across the Midwest one hundred years after they had been reduced to near extinction. Experts interviewed say critters such as cougars are known to be secretive and mostly keep to riverbanks and wooded areas, usually avoiding humans while feeding on deer, turkeys and raccoons.

With these sightings it brings to mind myths held by the Miami people who populated the Three Rivers woodlands in centuries past.  References to big cats extend back to the early inhabitants of the region such as Civil Chief Richardville’s Miami name pinsiwa translates “wild cat.” According to Mike Floyd author of l’Anguille Snakes in the Grass, Tecumseh was named for “Panther Passing By.” He speculated that Tecumseh’s name is derived from lore of the large wild cat known as Shipeshi “the sacred water panther. Or, historian Jacob Dunn wrote that the name Tecumseh belonged to the Spirit Panther totem which stood for a meteor or comet.
Miami descendant and Whitley County Historical Museum Director Dani Tippmann said, “There definitely were panthers around here.” The Miami tell of the “Water Panther” that lived near rivers and lakes.  Children were warned not to get close to the water for fear the panther would drag them into the depths. The age-old question arises whether or not there is a kernel of truth in most myths.  It is known that there are some large cats that prefer water and its surroundings.

Details of the monster Water Panther vary from community to community. Could those big cat accounts in the news possibly be a Jaguarundi?  A picture of one appears in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film Marnie. Known to roam present-day American Southwest, this big panther is a good swimmer and prefers dense cover with some open areas.  If cougars or leopards are being reported, why isn’t it possible that variations of the species are being noticed?  With its cat-like body about the size of a Labrador retriever, the Jaguarundi has a long tail, short legs and some say has an otter-like or cat-like head. A female can deliver her young in several shades of color including black, tan, gray or chestnut.  A Jaguarundi is considered a solitary animal that feeds on birds, rabbits and small rodents.

 As we look for how such creatures could be spotted in our neighborhoods, shouldn’t the Miami tale of “water” or “spirit panther” be looked at more carefully?   Could it be we might take a lesson from the lore of the Miami that it is this mysterious big cat which is returning to the Great Lakes country?  We’ll have to wait until we catch one on video tape with a sharper focus.


Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio. Ft. Wayne 106.3 FM and South Bend 95.7 FM.  Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at history centerfw.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Central Catholic National Catholic Basketball Champs

 (“Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – Feb 2015, No. 122)

Central Catholic National Catholic Basketball Champs

Basketball season in Indiana is a special time and its tradition-storied history is filled with tales retold and others that have faded with time.  According to Play On Celebrating 100 Years of High School Sports in Indiana, the book’s dust cover notes state, “Indiana without high school sports would be an unthinkable place.” Some would say more so before Class Basketball became the rule, however, looking back there were other issues.

 Somewhat forgotten as memories fade with time is the debilitating influence of the Ku Klux Klan.  The Indiana Klan had come into prominence in the 1920s. As such it had been successful in targeting, “Roman Catholics, followed by Jews, foreign-born immigrants and African-Americans” and succeeded in eliminating these groups from the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA).  

Play On goes on, “Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Association barred Catholic, private and segregated African-American schools from participating in IHSAA tournaments.  (However the) schools were under no probation against playing IHSAA schools during the regular season.”  That meant not playing in the celebrated annual state basketball tournament. 

Meanwhile, Catholic schools organized and participated in their own National Catholic Basketball league and held their own state tournament. Bob Heiny was a student at Fort Wayne’s Central Catholic High School and explained that his school joined that league, which presented its own playoff at the state level as well as a national tournament. The schools that turned in a winning season or won their state competition were invited to play for the National Catholic Basketball Championship title.  

By the end of the 1939 regular season, the Central Catholic (CC) basketball team finished its schedule losing only four of their twenty-one games. CC’s 1939 Echo yearbook reported the season’s results and how Coach John Levicki led his squad during the regular season competing against IHSAA and private schools alike. Among their seventeen wins were teams such as Elmhurst, Anderson, North Side and Concordia. The CC winning record qualified the team to compete in the State Catholic Tournament which they won beating Catholic schools from Anderson, Decatur and Indianapolis.  It earned them the right to compete in the Nationals.

In 1939, the CC’s hardwood squad included Jim Boedeker, George Bitler, Gene Maxwell, Ed Gorman, Bob Heiny, Ed Stanczak, Ed Dehner, Ed Klotz, John Falvy and Nick Leto.  The CC Irish swept Central Catholic of Wheeling, W.Va. 41-24, and Southeast Catholic of Philadelphia, Penna. 46-37. Moving on to the quarter finals they beat St. Basil’s of Pittsburg, Penna. 45-26. Now playing in Chicago they rolled over St. George of Evanston, Ill. 47-31. Hundreds of Fort Wayne fans traveled to the Loyola University gym and witnessed the final game which came down to the wire with Fort Wayne Central Catholic overcoming Chicago Leo Catholic High School with a final score of 44-37.

World War II brought change to the American culture.  Perhaps the changes had something to do with the IHSAA Athletic Council’s decision to no longer discriminate against any group from playing in its tournament. The exclusion rule that kept targeted groups which were perceived as a threat to the KKK was overturned on December 20, 1941, when the Council voted to end twenty years of discrimination.  

One other event took place before the ban was lifted that was ruled to become effective at the beginning of the 1942-1943 season.  The 1939 CC squad lost at least five of its players who were replaced in the 1940 season with the roster that included Ed Stancazk, Ed Klotz, Ed Dehner, Bob Heiny, Nick Leto, Harold Morthorst, John Kartholl, Dick Krouse, Bob Walker and Bert Keenen.  After Fort Wayne CC took both the 1939 State and National Tournament titles…they did it again in 1940.


Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio. Ft. Wayne 106.3 FM and South Bend 95.7 FM.  Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at history centerfw.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Lincoln Highway

 (“Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” - Nov 2014,  No. 119)

The Lincoln Highway
Tom Castaldi

At the south approach of the Fort Wayne’s Harrison Street Bridge is an embedded plaque with these words, “Lincoln Highway Bridge New York 724 Miles - San Francisco 2,660 miles.”  Directly across Harrison Street, on the north end another panel gives the names of the Indiana Allen County Commissioners and the date which reads, “1915”.

Lincoln Highway bridge
Jan Shupert-Arick in her book The Lincoln Highway Across Indiana has over 180 illustrations and features the Harrison Street Bridge.  It is described as a concrete structure built at a cost of $200,000 before it opened in 1916. Jan noted that, “A photograph of the bridge was printed in the Lincoln Highway guide as an example of how bridges could be designed to beautify communities and enhance the travelers’ experience.”  

From north of the city traveling south on Harrison Street the Lincoln Highway traveler crossed the Saint Mary’s River.  Continuing toward downtown, and now a portion of the Heritage Trail, it is still possible to experience revisiting one of America’s grand transportation achievements.

Fort Wayne has had a long and rich heritage when it comes to providing paths for the movement of people.  Because of a Continental uplift known as the Saint Lawrence Divide, and ancient glacier action, river ways flow in all four directions of the compass.  The Miami people understood the significance and Chief Little Turtle described the place in 1795 as, “That glorious gate through which all the good words of our chiefs had to pass from the north to the south and from the east to the west.”

George Washington saw the advantages of cutting a canal across that glorious gate known as the Maumee-Wabash Portage.  It was the only land barrier interrupting an all-water way connection between Lake Erie with the Wabash-Ohio-Mississippi valley system.  Fort Wayne the highest point along the line was dubbed the “Summit” for the construction of the longest canal in the western hemisphere. Later, as railroads mimicked the canal route and it seems fitting that the first cross continental highway would find its way through Allen County.

It was Indiana businessman Carl Fisher who envisioned America’s first coast-to-coast motor highway in 1913.  Fisher of Indianapolis working with his friend James Allison, together caught the attention of the auto makers to help finance a passable coast-to-coast roadway. As Shupert-Arick points out, Allison held the business skills while Fisher provided the vision and, “the auto industry the beneficiary.”  In September 1914, they announced the creation of the Lincoln Highway with a route winding from Times Square to San Francisco.  Fort Wayne was a point along the way and the Harrison Street, Lincoln Highway Bridge was constructed to accommodate the new automobile route.

Construction of the Lincoln Highway
The original 1915 Lincoln Highway entered Indiana from Ohio at Allen County. It passed through the communities of Zulu, Townley, Besancon, New Haven and Fort Wayne.  From Fort Wayne the Lincoln Highway headed toward Goshen, which later in 1926 became U.S. 33.  Known as the “1915 Route,” it passed through Churubusco through South Bend and on to Valparaiso.  In 1926, in an effort to shorten the distance, a new course was laid out passing through Columbia City, Warsaw, Bourbon, Plymouth and reconnecting the older route at Valparaiso.

After the 1915 opening, the U.S. Army conducted a 3,239 mile transcontinental convoy over the Lincoln Highway in 1919 from Washington DC to San Francisco. The story has been told of 28 year old Lt. Colonel who experienced the excursion, understood its military importance, its economic value and became the impetus for the Interstate system that he, Dwight D. Eisenhower later inaugurated when becoming President of the United States.

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.


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Forming Fort Wayne

 (“Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” - Oct 2014, No. 118)

Forming Fort Wayne
Tom Castaldi

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.