Old train stations sadly reflect Fort Wayne's past
By MICHAEL HAWFIELD
from the archives of The News-Sentinel
Today, the great arched profile of the former Penn Central Railroad Station on Baker Street, between Harrison and Webster streets, only sadly reflects the pride and excitement the building stirred when it was opened in 1914 - a time when nearly 100 trains from seven railroads arrived or departed Fort Wayne each day.
Many of these trains came from the old Pennsylvania Railroad and the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad. The new "Pennsy Station," as it was called, became the principal gateway to the booming industrial city.
Scarcely 30 years after the station was opened, however, many were concerned about the blighted appearance around the building. By 1946, there was a movement to rebuild the Pennsy station as a "Union Station" for all the major railroads serving Fort Wayne. It was to have a public plaza across the street to fill the block between Baker and Brackenridge streets.
Promoters of this plan preferred to see the Nickel Plate (today's Norfolk & Western) rerouted to the already-elevated Pennsylvania tracks. They opposed another railroad improvement idea that called for the elevation of the Nickel Plate tracks that ran through the middle of the city parallel to Main Street. In the end, the decision was made to elevate the Nickel Plate tracks, and that work was completed in 1955. This was hailed as the greatest improvement to the city in half a century, and it opened the entire north side of Fort Wayne to widespread suburban and industrial growth.
To the south, the old Pennsy Station was left unimproved, and development in the southern suburbs slowed dramatically. Today, no passenger trains stop at the station.
The very first railroad depot in Fort Wayne was built in 1851 at the northwest corner of Lafayette and Columbia streets, at the edge of the Wabash- Erie Canal and at the end of a set of tracks that ran down the middle of Lafayette Street.
There, at the canal landing in 1854, the first locomotive to come to Fort Wayne was unloaded from a canal barge that had brought the engine - in pieces - from the port of Toledo.
Assembled in Francis Comparet's nearby warehouse, this locomotive appeared to the thrill of everyone and loudly chugged and smoked its way down Lafayette to the newly formed Ohio & Indiana Railway line south of town. The engine was put to work as the railroad was completed to Chicago (by 1856), and Fort Wayne was ushered into a new age of transportation.
In 1856, the Ohio & Indiana became a part of the larger Pittsburgh, Chicago & Fort Wayne Railroad, the predecessor of the great Pennsylvania Railroad. Two years later, local railroad promoters Samuel Hanna and Allen Hamilton built a train station on a section of Hamilton's land along the tracks. (Hanna donated the adjacent five acres for railroad repair shops, later known as the Pennsy Shops.) This station, located between Calhoun and Clinton streets north of the railroad, was the first passenger station built in Fort Wayne - a very pleasant neo-classical building of red brick with white trim.
On the lower level of that first station was a restaurant, and on the second floor was a hotel called the McKennie House between 1863 and 1903.
Fort Wayne's first passenger station had the singular distinction of being the only building in Fort Wayne directly connected to Abraham Lincoln.
On Feb. 23, 1860, while he was making his way to New York to deliver his famous Cooper Union Address - the speech that assured his nomination as the Republican candidate - Lincoln stopped in Fort Wayne in the dead of night to change trains.
There is no evidence that he ever left the station - it was 1 a.m. - and only a brief notice in Dawson's Daily News of Fort Wayne noted his passing: "The Hon. Abe Lincoln and wife came from the west this morning at 1 o'clock, on the Toledo, Wabash and Western Railroad, and changing cars at this city, went east."
''Ole Abe" passed through again, on his way back to Springfield, Ill., on March 13, 1860, but again he did not leave the station. In later years, many stories were told around Fort Wayne about how one person or another had seen Lincoln and even spoke to him at the original Pennsy Station. But by then, the martyred president was the stuff of legend.
Not all was fine foods and comfortable hotel accommodations in the area around the first Pennsy Station: After the Civil War, pickpockets and other ne'er-do-wells plagued travelers.
One band of "gamblers, confidence men and pickpockets" in particular descended on Fort Wayne in the 1860s. And it was quite a well-organized gang. One incident especially raised the ire of area residents. In 1865, the Indiana State Fair was held in Fort Wayne (for the first and only time), and 20,000 visitors came to the city, mostly by rail. When a train arrived, the thieves would climb into the cars and begin to pick pockets. As soon as they had picked the pocket clean, they marked the back of the victim's coat with chalk so fellow thieves would not waste their time.
All this criminal behavior, it was believed, centered around Carey's Saloon, one block north of the McKennie House and the rail station. "Captain" Carey was a Canadian who set up his saloon after leaving the Union army in 1865.
Things began to get bad around the train station soon after his arrival, but Ed Ryan, a "notorious confidence man and a suspected murderer," was the leader, according to the railroad authorities.
The situation came to a head when Ryan, to his horror, learned that the pocket he was picking belonged to the sheriff of Whitley County, who was trying to board a train.
Ryan was shot while trying to escape and never fully recovered from his gunshot wounds.
The railroad workers had had enough, also. Four hundred railroad men stormed Carey's Saloon and ordered the bartender and his family out. No one could say how a fire got started that night, and the saloon burned to the ground amid the cheers of the crowd.
A "committee" remained behind to make sure all the gang from Carey's understood the new state of affairs and moved on.
--April 18, 1994