Fort Wayne is the county seat of Allen County. The downtown area is located in the northeast quadrant of Wayne Township, close to the center of the county. The location of this center of trade and commerce in Indiana's northeast region was originally determined by the unusual natural waterways that it possessed. The fort from which the community derived its name was an eighteenth century American fort, built in 1794. It replaced several earlier frontier outposts originally established by the French. The site had been a gathering place however, for Native American tribes for many centuries before. The confluence of three rivers, the St. Joseph, the St. Mary's, and the Maumee, made the site a traditional trade center for the Miami, Potowatomi, Wea, and other tribes that inhabited the Great Lakes region. These waterways provided access to the Great Lakes and much of Ohio, as well as northern and central Indiana. In addition, a short, 7-8 mile portage between the Maumee and the Wabash River to the west, gave access to the Illinois lands and to southern Indiana, as well as to the Ohio River, as it flowed westward to the Mississippi. This extensive natural trade network gave Fort Wayne distinct advantages for commerce and settlement. Before the influx of European settlers, the Indian town of Kekionga was known to have flourished at the site.
Early pioneers were attracted to Fort Wayne by the profitable fur trade. When the U.S. Land Office opened in 1823, in the buildings of the last fort, to sell off all public lands for which Indian title had been eliminated by treaty, the abundant real estate available created a new incentive for settlement. John Barr, a merchant from Baltimore, Maryland, and John McCorkle, of Piqua, Ohio, combined their resources and purchased the first tract of land, which is known as "the original plat." This original plat is today the center of downtown, and its purchase marks the beginning of the city. By the mid-1820s, early settlers with names like Ewing, Hanna, Suttenfield, Swinney, Comparet, Kercheval, Rockhill, and Hamilton, had begun building the future city of Fort Wayne.
Allen County was created by an act of the Indiana General Assembly on December 17, 1823, to go into effect in April 1824. Elections were held, offices filled, and county business was conducted, but the first courthouse was not built until 1831. In Fort Wayne, the 1827 house of Miami chief Jean Baptiste de Richardville on Bluffton Road exists today as not only the oldest building in Allen County, but also the oldest brick structure in northern Indiana, and the oldest surviving Native American structure of any kind in the entire Midwest.
Construction of the Wabash & Erie Canal in the 1830s fostered further development in Fort Wayne and earned the city its nickname "Summit City," because it was the highest point above sea level along the entire canal route. The canal opened Fort Wayne to greater commercial possibilities and caused a great influx of immigrants to the growing community. Residential neighborhoods began expanding into the West Central area and a bustling commercial center developed along the canal in the area known today as The Landing. It was here that a docking and maneuvering bay known as the Orbison Basin existed which allowed the boats to easily turn around, and load and unload goods and passengers. The John Brown Stone Warehouse on Superior Street, also known as the Canal House, is the only building remaining which was directly associated with the canal, although many along Columbia Street date from the last decades of the era.
The first railroad locomotive in Fort Wayne was delivered by canal boat in 1854. Tracks were laid quickly, and the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago Railroad, later the Pennsylvania Railroad, developed the first line on the south side of town, where they also constructed their important repair and construction shops, known as the "Pennsy" Shops. This facility dominated the local industrial world for the next century. Fort Wayne became known as the "Altoona of the West" because of its key position in the great Pennsylvania Railroad, and it is one of the principal reasons for the City's dynamic position in the later 19th century as a center of manufacturing. In 1880, the canal right-of-way was purchased by the Nickel Plate Railroad whose elevated tracks trace the canal route through the north edge of downtown.
In the latter part of the 19th century, the growth and development of such major industries as the Bass Foundry, Packard Piano Company, Wayne Knitting Mills, Jenney Electric Company, and Bowser Pump Company generated city-wide expansion. Immigrants of all kinds poured into Fort Wayne to work in the factories, and the surrounding neighborhoods, such as Nebraska, South Wayne, West Central, and East Central, developed at a rapid pace. The bulk of Fort Wayne's inner city housing dates from this period. The numerous towers and church steeples of all denominations that bestowed upon Fort Wayne the nickname "City of Churches" also began to rise during this period. The Centlivre Brewery, which operated a large park for entertainment and beer sales, and the recreational complex of Robison Park lured people across the rivers and into outlying areas. The pride and confidence of the period is best expressed in the Allen County Courthouse, which was begun in 1897 and dedicated in 1902. Designed by Brentwood Tolan, this building is one of the finest expressions of architecture and interior decoration found in the United States.
During the 19th century, Fort Wayne had been a relatively compact city. All classes preferred to live near the center of the city in popular neighborhoods such as the West End, near the stores and their places of work. As the city grew more dense and industrialized, and as transportation options broadened with the extensive electric trolley service available by 1892, those who could afford to, moved to larger, landscaped lots in neighborhoods such as the Lakeside Park addition, platted in 1890, and Williams-Woodland Park, platted in 1903.
The population of Fort Wayne increased from 45,115 in 1900 to 114,946 in 1930. This increased population continued the trend toward suburbanization. Between 1910 and 1920 many outlying neighborhoods such as Wildwood Place, Forest Park, Oakdale, Arcadia/Englewood, Lafayette Place, Harrison Hill, Kensington Park, and South Wood Park were developed. By the mid-1920s the busiest commercial area shifted from the original Columbia, Berry, and Main Street areas to the Wayne, Washington, and Jefferson Street regions. Nearly all retail business and entertainment spots were centered downtown, although most neighborhoods contained small groceries, repair shops, and bakeries. Major industries such as the Tokheim Pump Company, International Harvester, Inca Manufacturing (Phelps Dodge), Rea Magnet Wire, the Capehart Phonograph Company, and Magnavox opened in the 1920s. Although the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company was initially organized in 1905, by 1923 it had become recognized as one of the most innovative companies in the business and moved into its new headquarters on Harrison Street where it remains today. Notable buildings such as the Embassy Theater, Scottish Rite Auditorium, and the Chamber of Commerce reveal the eclectic grandeur of the era and the rise of major apartment buildings such as Fairfield Manor reveal changing residential patterns.
Fort Wayne continued to grow even during the depression years, with Farnsworth Television, Essex Wire, Zollner Piston, Central Soya, Holsum Bakery, and a number of other companies beginning business. Only weeks after the collapse of the stock market in October of 1929, ground was broken for the construction of the Lincoln Bank Tower in downtown Fort Wayne. The tallest building in Indiana when it was completed two years later, it remains one of the most beautiful and striking buildings in the city. Downtown Fort Wayne reached its peak in the 1940s with hundreds of businesses from small shops to large department stores thriving in the central business district centering on Calhoun Street.
Major changes in the city began to occur in the 1950s with the appearance of small shopping centers such as Quimby Village, Rudisill Center, and South Anthony Plaza. The biggest jump came in 1955 with the opening of Southgate Shopping Center, just off Pettit Avenue. With more than 2000 free parking spaces and easy access to the rapidly growing suburban neighborhoods, Southgate set the tone for new developments in the late 1950s and 1960s. The elevation of the old Nickel Plate Railroad tracks running through downtown in 1955 opened a flood of suburban expansion on the north side of Fort Wayne. Beginning with the dedication of the Memorial Coliseum in 1952, the development of Northcrest Shopping Center in 1958 and Skyline Plaza on Goshen Road in 1959, and numerous housing additions, this northward expansion continues to this day.
Cities rarely remain static, and Fort Wayne continues to grow and change. Unfortunately, many irreplaceable markers of the City's history have been lost in the name of progress. From the Chief Richardville House to the Sunbeam Bread sign, we need to document our historic resources and increase awareness, so that in planning for the future, we can incorporate the richness of the past.