Floods punctuate Fort Wayne’s history

Even so, we appreciate our rivers

From the 1913 flood, courtesy of the Allen County Public Library Digital Collection

Between March 23 and 27, 1913, a tornado stirred through Nebraska and floods moved through Indiana and Ohio. An enormous weather system brought heavy rains to the Middle West states. Historian Bert Griswold in 1917 wrote that this was the most disastrous in the history of Fort Wayne. During the last week of March in 1913, six lives were lost, 15,000 people were made homeless and property damage was massive.

The earliest recorded flood in the Three Rivers area was in 1790, four years before Fort Wayne was established, the result of a devastating combination of a rapid spring thaw and heavy rains. Gerald T. Hopkins, visiting the Three Rivers region in 1804, wrote about the 9-mile portage between Fort Wayne and Huntington, which normally blocked an all-water connection between the Maumee and Wabash river basins. He said, “The Indians say that in high freshets they have passed from one water to the other in their canoes.” Later, Chief Engineer Jesse Williams used a January 1828 high water mark blazed on a walnut sapling to set the necessary heights of Wabash and Erie Canal banks and bridges on the rivers.

Before dikes were built, the average flood level was 14 feet. When engineers built dikes to protect riverside neighborhoods and businesses, the flood levels rose steadily. By the 1920s, with more natural land surfaces replaced with paved roads and parking lots, floods were more frequent and the average flood moved to nearly 20 feet. However, the 1913 flood was the worst to date. Mayor Jesse Grice organized a heroic relief effort and martial law was declared with orders given to shoot looters. Once again in 1982, due to the flood-fighting efforts of volunteers against record high water, Fort Wayne gained a reputation as the “City that Saved Itself.”

In 1985 and in 1991, floods again inundated the area. In the wake of these disasters, plans for allowing floodwaters to wash across the great bend in the Saint Marys River assumed increasing importance. At the groundbreaking ceremony of Headwaters Park Oct. 26, 1993, the Fort Wayne Bicentennial Celebration presented a monument to the cooperative efforts of all elements of the “City that Saved Itself.”

On Oct. 22, 1999, a dedication took place with then-Gov. Frank O’Bannon joining the Headwaters Park Commission. The commission turned the project over to the city’s parks department for operation Jan. 1, 2000. During that same year, the nonprofit Headwaters Park Alliance was given full-time management responsibility for the space by the City of Fort Wayne’s parks board. In doing so, a public-private arrangement was established bolstering a spirit of individual citizens working together with local government.

Even with the threat of flood and tempest, we’ve come to know and appreciate our rivers, which usually have brought prosperity. Early people settled along waterways, and as with Fort Wayne, many developed into modern-day vibrant communities. Rivers are the reason humankind settled the area, established a portage across a land barrier that connects Maumee and Wabash River systems, attracted the construction of the Wabash and Erie Canal followed by rails, highways, industries, our schools and our homes. It brought good, industrious people such as John Chapman (a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed) seen in 1830 arriving here on the Maumee River with his small boat loaded down with his apple seeds. More people are beginning to appreciate the recreational and economic possibilities offered by the St. Marys and St. Joseph rivers, which form the Maumee.

With our abundance of rivers, we’ve learned to enjoy them and to respectfully manage their excesses. Knowing the potential for high waters, we give them full rein to consume – and in fact even direct them – to overflow onto the land surfaces in the great bend in the St. Marys River and the vast expanse of Headwaters Park to keep them in abeyance on their way downstream.

First appeared in the March 2017 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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