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Editorials

Baals’ serious legacy

Baals
A Calhoun Street plaque notes Baals’ contribution.
Photos by Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gazette
The railroad-track elevation completed in 1955 opened up northern Fort Wayne for development.

What would be worse than suffering torrents of abuse because one of the mayors of Fort Wayne was named Harry Baals? Refusing to honor a deserving mayor owing to his name, that’s what.

Even in death, Mayor Baals may not be getting his due because today’s officials are worried that his name will bring ridicule to the city. Before city officials reject his name out of hand, the least they could do is give him a fair hearing, because his accomplishments were considerable.

In any event, the ridicule has already happened. National TV news and talk, British newspapers, Facebook postings – all have gotten mileage out of the decision not to name the city office building for him. For all the abuse, we in the city are no worse off, including our sense of humor.

As Tracy Warner pointed out in a column a couple of weeks ago, Baals was mayor for much of the Great Depression and throughout World War II. At 15 1/2 years, his tenure is the second longest of any Fort Wayne mayor’s.

His biggest contribution – his legacy – is the elevation of the Nickel Plate railroad tracks through town, roughly parallel to Main Street.

“The elevation will add much to the continued orderly growth of Fort Wayne,” this newspaper editorialized. “It will help to solve the problem of traffic congestion. It is an achievement of which we all can be proud.”

Indeed. After the railroad was elevated, trains no longer held up traffic as often or as long as they had. At the time, downtown was a hub of commerce, where most people worked and shopped. Trains were coming through so often that people did not want to live north of downtown.

Baals signed an agreement with the railroad in 1947. At the groundbreaking Dec. 15, 1953, he noted that the project would remove barriers to the north side and assured the crowd that there would be more benefits that “we cannot foresee at this time.”

How true. The elevation of the tracks of the New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad, known as the Nickel Plate Road, opened the north side to a building and population expansion that arguably continues today, long after the era of railroads ended.

In short, Baals, who was not alive when the elevation was completed in 1955, having died in office in 1954, changed the shape and future of Fort Wayne. Not many mayors did that so profoundly as he did. If we are going to honor government officials by putting their names on buildings, Baals has as good a claim as some and better than most.

Today’s officials ought to be making the legacy, not the name itself, their No. 1 criterion. And Harry Baals deserves consideration and not what has happened so far: a coy rejection because people don’t want to say his name.

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