A pontoon ride through the past

May 31st, 2016

News Coverage:

May 30, 2016

A pontoon ride through the past

Jamie Duffy | The Journal Gazette

Fort Wayne may be known as the City of Churches, but it was a rough and rowdy road to that moniker.

In the late 1820s and 1830s, the workers on the Wabash Canal brought their bad ways with them and word reached the godly folk of the East Coast, who sent missionaries.

That is part of the history that Matt Jones, a river guide and Allen County water resource education specialist, shared Sunday with his first passengers on a 22-foot-long pontoon boat he guided on the St. Marys River.

Jones, who is also a local historian, has given Fort Wayne-oriented tours on land and water, but this was his first for Riverfront Fort Wayne Historic Tours. He was out to enjoy the hot, sunny day on the river and entertain his first passengers with “The Wickedest City in the West – Rivers, Rails and Canals.”

It seems one of the major draws of the area was the short portage between the Maumee River and the Little Wabash River. That 6- to 8-mile trek allowed water travel from the Little Wabash to the Great Wabash River, then on to the Ohio River and the Mississippi River, “all the way to New Orleans,” Jones said.

When the Europeans arrived, there was the usual frontier violence among the Native Americans, the French and the British.

The French were here between 1650 and 1660. They built their first trading post on the banks of St. Marys in 1685.

By 1695, Jones said, a fort was established, putting its founding on par with New Orleans. The French also treated the Native Americans in a more friendly manner, showing deference at times and living peacefully with them.

Not so with the British, who stirred up anti-French sentiment, and at the same time behaved in a superior manner, Jones added. If the French lasted 60 years, the British only lasted three. But the short portage was too good for anyone to give up.

On Oct 22, 1790, a battle took place in Fort Wayne between the U.S. Army and the Native Americans in which 300 people died. On the same date in 1794, Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne dedicated the fort, and the town was incorporated on Oct. 22, 1823, Jones said, calling it “a huge day in Fort Wayne’s history.”

Along the way, Jones answered questions about the river itself. The deep green color, as opposed to the ideal translucent green, could be a precursor to an algae bloom, but was also indicative of the rich biodiversity of the river. When it gets really muddy and brown, that shows the level of sediment.

“I like to see the osprey fish,” he suddenly announced, pointing to overhead flying birds. “That’s a good sign.” If osprey can survive, that could mean the fish had fewer pesticides in them leading to healthier osprey.

What happens to the logs floating and stuck in the river? Nothing, which can mean some danger for boaters, but at the same time the logs close to the riverbanks become habitats for wildlife, Jones said.

The river was in good shape Sunday, said Jones when the pontoon boat arrived at the juncture of the St. Marys, St. Joseph and Maumee rivers. Usually, the St. Joe looks much clearer than the other two, he explained.

Waving to people on the riverbanks along the way was one of Jones’ rules, accompanied by a ducky honk from the boat

It was between 1840 and 1855 that the city got churchified. Concerned that Fort Wayne was a town of debauchery, missionaries arrived from nearly every denomination in the East to save sinners’ souls.

“Every time you go, you learn something new,” said Sally Schilf of Fort Wayne, who came with her husband, Ken.

“I’ve never been on a riverboat cruise,” said Suzanne Scott, also of Fort Wayne, who settled in for the hour-long ride to just enjoy herself.

Riverfront Fort Wayne is part of a three-part effort to build support for revitalizing the downtown riverfront, city officials said. Partners in Riverfront Fort Wayne include the city, the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne and Capital Improvement Board.

The riverboat tours will be offered on select Sunday evenings at 5:30, 6:30 and 7:30 p.m.

Each tour can accommodate 10 people, ages 12 and up, and there is no cost. Boats launch from Headwaters Park West. Registration and payment are required online by visiting www.FortWayneParks.org.