Edison landed here

He worked as a telegrapher on Columbia Street

Downtown Fort Wayne offers surprising history. The Landing on the western end of Columbia Street holds a cluster of 19th and 20th-century structures that were once at the center of Fort Wayne. It was designated a historic district in 1965 and saved from the general dismantling of the rest of Columbia Street. In 1994, the Landing was recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.

The old street began as an unplanned trace that led westward from the U.S. fort at the confluence of the St. Joseph and St. Marys rivers and eventually led travelers to the beginnings of the portage to the Wabash River. When the Wabash and Erie Canal came along, it became the landing place or depot for both passengers and cargo, which encouraged economic development in the region.

On Columbia Street at the age of 17, Thomas Edison is said to have arrived in the summer of 1864 to work as a telegraph operator. A demand for these facilitators of 19th-century communications increased during the Civil War years. It was here that Edison found a position in Fort Wayne as an itinerant telegrapher working for the Wabash Railroad Company. Unfortunately the building in which he worked was razed in 1980.

Historian John Ankenbruck noted that Thomas Alva Edison came to Fort Wayne from Port Huron, Mich., and took a room in a three-story brick building at the northwest corner of Columbia and Calhoun streets. He is also believed to have lived a block east at Clinton and Columbia.

Others question whether anyone knows for sure where Edison worked and lived while in Fort Wayne. Since his employer was the Wabash Railroad Company, a residence near Baker Street may have been more likely. Edison wasn’t in town too long, and in less than a year he moved to Indianapolis with Western Union Telegraph Company and still later to Louisville, Ky.

Edison was born Feb. 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio. Robert D. Parker, in a July 1978 Fort Wayne publication, noted Edison’s formal schooling lasted a mere three months. However, he had the advantage of being home-schooled by his schoolteacher mother who was convinced her son deserved better than the school that had placed him at the bottom of his class.

During his younger years, Edison bought a small printing press and worked with the telegraphers to publish The Weekly Herald to cover events in the towns on the Grand Trunk Railroad line between Detroit and Port Huron. At 12, riding the rails selling Detroit newspapers, he also printed and distributed news for the small communities not covered by the big-city publishers.

Edison became interested in electricity while spending time in and out of telegraph offices. With a neighbor friend, he stretched a wire between their houses. Using crude homemade keys, along with batteries for powering their devices, the two became proficient at messaging each other. Meanwhile, in gratitude for having rescued a boy from a certain rail fatality, the saved lad’s station agent father offered to teach Edison railroad telegraphy. At 15, Edison already knew Morse code and soon landed a job as the telegrapher in the Port Huron office.

Edison is the holder of 1,093 patents, many of which have made their way into our everyday lives. The more recognizable developments are those that emerged from the incandescent light bulb, phonograph cylinder, carbon microphone, movie camera and electric power distribution, to mention a few. Thomas Alva Edison passed away Oct. 31, 1931, and was buried in Rosedale Cemetery in Orange, N.J. However, in 1963 his remains were reburied in the Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, N.J.

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