Audio: “Headwaters Park” featuring Tom Castaldi. Courtesy of WBNI-Fort Wayne.
Headwaters Park was created by a means of flood control within the city by the citizens of Fort Wayne through their ideas, labor and donations. In 1912, George Kessler envisioned a plan of a green space for recreation within the great bend of the St. Mary’s River to absorb springtime floods. Robert Hanna’s park design that he submitted to the city in 1927 had a similar plan. The Indiana Department of Transportation also developed a plan for the flood plain in 1984. 1790 held the earliest recorded flood in Fort Wayne, four years before the city’s existence, when the settlement of the Kekionga Indians suffered from a rapid spring thaw and heavy rains. Before dikes were built, flood levels would get as high as 14 feet. By the 1920s, floods were more frequent and that number rose to nearly 20 feet. The worst flood on record for Fort Wayne was when the Maumee River rose overnight from 7 feet to over 26 feet in March of 1913. Fifteen thousand people were made homeless and six people lost their lives due to the dikes along the Lakeside neighborhood giving way. Mayor Jesse Grice ordered martial law with orders given to shoot looters. Fort Wayne saved itself then and would do so again in 1982 when a large volunteer effort was made to preserve the dikes against the second highest flood on record. At the ground breaking ceremony on Oct. 26, 1993, Headwaters Park was dedicated as the premier “Lasting Legacy” of the Fort Wayne Bicentennial Celebration and a monument to the citizens of the “City That Saved Itself.”
Headwaters Park is located in “The Thumb” of the St. Mary’s River; before it became what it is today, it was used for several different things such home to the circus in the 1850’s and as the hanging grounds. Just north of the “Jail Flats”, it was used for this purpose until the 1880s. Sam McDonald’s hanging was the last public hanging in Fort Wayne. He was charged with the killing of Louis Laurent and hanged in 1883. League Park found a home at Headwaters Park until a fire destroyed it in 1930. In the 1930s, the park became a site for “Shantytowns”; the park was filled with makeshift shacks for the homeless who tried to live through the Depression. The shanties were razed in 1939 as the economy improved and in the 1950s the grounds were claimed for the circus. The rebirth of the thumb happened with the widening of Clinton Street. In the 1940s and 1950s, Headwaters Park was occupied with service stations, retail businesses, and car dealerships. Almost the entire park was comprised of businesses and parking lots by 1960. The concrete that lay in Headwaters Park did not help the effects of the floods and businesses were often devastated by the rising water of the rivers.
The first Europeans to view the three rivers were probably Jesuit missionaries from Quebec. At the Three Rivers Filtration Plant there is a bronze statue to commemorate the unknown explorer who gave the rivers their names. Commissioned to create the 7 foot statue was the Joseph Parrot family and was designed by Fort Wayne artist Hector Garcia who completed the statue in 1976. The figure points to the spot where the St. Joseph and St. Mary’s rivers become the Maumee.
Photos courtesy of ARCH Inc.
The Bicentennial Heritage Trail Group, ARCH Inc., Essex Group, Inc., On The Heritage Trial, Fort Wayne, Indiana: A Walking Guide Book (1994), pp.66-67.
Geoff Paddock, Images of America-Headwaters Park, Fort Wayne’s Lasting Legacy (2002).