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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
A QR, or quick response, code has been added to a historical marker on Berry Street that is part of the ARCH Heritage Trail. Walkers can scan it with a smartphone and get more information.

History markers going digital

QR codes give walking trail added smartphone dimension

The Journal Gazette

As vehicles zip west downtown on Berry Street, barely visible to those rushing by the Barr Street intersection is a testament to Eliza “Mother” George: a historic marker for her work during the Civil War.

The sign has become part of the landscape, perhaps all but invisible to those navigating rush hour. If we stop long enough to read it, we learn that George “braved Confederate gunfire to comfort the sick and wounded” time and again and that she died from typhoid. Her first Fort Wayne home was near the marker.

Below the sign, and perhaps out of sync with our brief immersion in the 1800s, is one of those square codes with the squiggly lines that some of us have come to know from retail ads and shopping.

Pulled from history and placed in front of her own memorial, Mother George no doubt would be puzzled.

But in the 21st century, those codes, called QR codes, will take us back to the days of Mother George and other moments in Fort Wayne history.

ARCH Inc., the city’s historic preservation group, has digitized the Central Downtown Heritage Trail, of which the George marker is a part. There are three other paths east, south and west of the central city that make up ARCH’s walking tour called the Heritage Trail.

The idea is for walkers to find additional information by scanning the QR codes using their smartphones at each stop along the trail. Then they’ll find expanded descriptions of the historic sites, more photos and hyperlinks leading to even more information.

They’ll also be able to listen to “On the Heritage Trail” audio segments by Tom Castaldi, Allen County historian, heard weekly on public radio WBNI-FM. In essence, it is a self-guided audio tour.

The digital updating comes nearly 20 years after the Heritage Trail began as part of the city’s bicentennial in 1994. The trail has changed little since then.

“Obviously, since ’94 we’ve had a complete revolution on how people access information,” said Michael Galbraith, ARCH executive director.

Over the last year, a $2,000 grant awarded jointly by Indiana Landmarks and Indiana Humanities has allowed the group to develop and add Web pages for each of the 19 stops along the Central Trail to ARCH’s website, Scanning a QR code at a historic marker takes a user to a page on that website.

ARCH added some of its own money, and the entire project is expected to cost $3,000 to $3,500, Galbraith said. QR codes are still being added to some markers on the Central Trail, but all should be up in a couple of weeks, he added.

Digitizing the other trails will follow as money is available. The Central Trail was first because it gets the most foot traffic, Galbraith said.

And the information available at each stop is extensive.

For example, at the Anthony Wayne statue in Freimann Square, visitors learn that George E. Ganiere of Chicago sculpted the statue, which was dedicated in 1918 at Hayden Park at Maumee and Harmar streets. It was moved to its current location in 1973. In addition, there are 10 hyperlinks and a Castaldi segment that visitors can click for even more information.

Recent discussions about moving the Wayne statue – the first stop on the Central Trail – had Galbraith and Lori Graf, ARCH program specialist, a bit nervous. The statue will remain at Freimann Square, but had it been moved, trail numbers would have had to be changed. Maps would be inaccurate.

When a move seemed imminent, Galbraith said he thought, “Hey, wait. This is a starter place” for the trail.

And there are a lot of Heritage Trail maps out there.

Dan O’Connell, president and CEO of Visit Fort Wayne, the city’s visitor’s center, said the agency provides the maps to residents and out-of-towners.

“Our visitor center staff has told me that they hand out about 300 maps a year,” he said.

Residents with some historical knowledge use them to find sites, he said. Out-of-towners simply want to know about the city they’re visiting.

“The Heritage Trail map is handed to them, and they go up the street” to search for a historic building or other site, he said.

Castaldi, who volunteers his time, said his radio bits began shortly after the trail started. Digitizing it is “kind of a cool idea,” he said. He, ARCH and the radio station decided to make some of the roughly 130 radio episodes available at the historical markers.

Through the years, the episodes have continued to be warmly received, he said.

“I’ve always said, people who understand their history take pride in their community, and pride is what builds community,” Castaldi said. Digitizing the trail is “a nice expansion using social media or recent technology, and it’s where it needs to go.”

Galbraith said the updating also allows schools to use the information in history lessons. In fact, a fourth-grade lesson plan involving the battle of Kekionga and meeting state educational standards has been added to the site as a prototype, Graf said.

Galbraith also hopes the updated website will be visited by distant users – perhaps former residents – who want to learn more about Fort Wayne history.

“It’s a nice way to bring the Heritage Trail to a wider audience,” he said.