The life of the Bass Foundry

from the archives of The News-Sentinel

The iron horse used to move the nation. And Fort Wayne's Bass Foundry moved the iron horse.

At the turn of the century, the Bass Foundry and Machine Co. was to Fort Wayne what International Harvester was later to become. Bass was the world's leading manufacturer of railroad wheels and also produced boilers and other essential rail-related items.

The foundry was the city's biggest and most important industry. At one time it employed 1,100 men and boasted a then-sizable monthly payroll of $35,000. The plant itself was ``so vast ... nothing can sufficiently portray its size,'' according to a story in the Fort Wayne Gazette on Jan. 1, 1888.

Today, though, just a few old-looking buildings along Hanna Street are all that's left of what was once the city's industrial centerpiece.

The railroad came to northern Indiana in 1852, and within years the existing canal system was a ghost. It was obvious to most that the railroad would soon be king, and scores of supporting industries began to emerge.

One of the first here was the Fort Wayne Machine Works, which in 1857 began casting steel items for the railroad. Enter John H. Bass, born in Kentucky in 1835, who in 1862 purchased the works from his older brother Sion. Sion Bass was killed during the Civil War at the battle of Shiloh.

John Bass kept the foundry going, soon building it into national importance. Within a decade, he had opened similar foundries in St. Louis, Chicago, Atlanta and Tennessee.

Bass quickly became a wealthy man, as the increasing demand for train travel caused an increasing demand for train components. He built a magnificent home,

Brookside, which was known for its lake, gardens and wildlife preserve. Today, the old Bass home serves as St. Francis College's administration building.

Bass died in 1922, and the foundry's fate after that was not happy. Bass products no longer dominated the marketplace and in 1939 the foundry, ravaged by the Depression, filed for reorganization under federal bankruptcy law, claiming debts of $250,000.

Soon after, the foundry's remaining 270 employees went on strike demanding a 10-cents-an-hour increase.

In 1941, the company was purchased by a Hoosier living in California named Thomas Simmons. World War II, for a time, brought new life to the old place, which had to hire hundreds of new employees to produce war goods.

But the Bass foundry closed up shop after World War II ended, and today the remaining buildings are occupied by Shrex office supply and National Heat Treating Corp. Some are vacant, their windows boarded shut to discourage vandals.

--Nov. 28, 1981