Laying out the town

It started with Columbia Street

You could say that Fort Wayne is here because of its rivers. Anthony Wayne placing his fortress near water was a strategic decision. Positioned to protect and defend three rivers was perhaps of primary importance. Just as vital was another popular waterway of sorts that connected Lake Erie, between the Maumee River and across the “natural” track or “Carrying Place” with the Wabash River Valley to the west and the Mississippi River system.

John Barr and John McCorkle combined their resources in 1823 to buy the original tract of 110 acres that became the city of Fort Wayne. Barr was a land speculator from Baltimore, Maryland, who was heavily involved in supplying trade goods to the Ohio and Pennsylvania frontier. McCorkle was a Westerner interested in the business of the Indian trade. Once the land was purchased, the two partners had their new property surveyed and laid out to begin offering lots for sale to the public.

Originally, the partners paid $26 an acre, which was a very high price for the time. Most frontier lands were sold for the minimum of $1.25 per acre. As always, it had to do with location, location, location. Much had to do with the presence of Indians, the Indian Agency and the very lucrative fur trade. In those years, the Fort Wayne fur trade was greater than the combined trade of both Detroit and Chicago and the Indian Agency made annual payments of tens of thousands of dollars to over 3,000 tribe members who held the lands of northern Indiana.

The original layout of the town of Fort Wayne was based on the “natural” track of the first street, Columbia, which was along a line that ran toward the west from the old fort but not along a true east-west line. When streets were first laid out, they were based on the off-center line of the original Columbia Street, which not long after became known as the “Landing.” Along here is where scores of warehouses, boat docks, turnaround basins, custom houses, inns and taverns clustered to serve Wabash Erie Canal travelers and freight, which created unprecedented economic development.

The area that is now in the heart of Fort Wayne’s downtown was bounded on the north by Superior Street, on the east by Barr Street, on the south by Washington Boulevard and on the west by the alley between Harrison and Calhoun streets. Extending to Wayne on the south, it is bisected by Clinton crossed by Wayne, Berry, Main and Columbia.

A map of the early Fort Wayne plat in the History Center’s collection contains interesting information. The first among the map’s “Notes” corresponds to a block on the map bound by Main, Clinton, Berry and Calhoun streets. It is designated, “Public Ground for County Purposes.” It had been donated by McCorkle and Barr and subsequently became the site of each of four county courthouses. The partners donated several additional lots to the “County of Allen.” Separately, a lot was designated as “Burial Grounds” in the northwest corner of the plat and immediately to the east, still another was marked “School lot.”

South of town, Samuel Lewis became the first settler to lay out his addition according to the actual points of the compass. In the process he gave his name to the true east-west street which sets it all straight. Lewis was a relative of Meriwether Lewis, of “Lewis and Clark” fame; and his wife, Katherine Wallace, was the aunt of the author of the novel “Ben Hur,” Gen. Lew Wallace, who stayed at the couple’s rose-covered log home on several occasions. Samuel Lewis came to Fort Wayne in 1827 as the appointee of President John Quincy Adams to be the sub-agent for Indian affairs in the district.

When those first developers laid out the streets of Fort Wayne, based on the off-center line of the original Columbia Street, it made sense that it ran west from the old fort. Today, main thoroughfares move traffic in all directions, echoing the observations made in 1795 by the Miami War Chief Little Turtle when he said this place was “that glorious gate … through which all the good words of our chiefs had to pass from north to south and from east to west.”

First appeared in the June 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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