Standing at the Columbia Street bridge while water from the St. Joseph River joins the St. Marys to form the Maumee River several yards away, it’s not immediately apparent that this spot links Fort Wayne with Lake Erie.
Or that, from this spot, the Maumee, a human transit way for thousands of years before it was ever seen by Europeans, shaped the contours and the character of an entire region.
Indeed, says Angie Quinn of Fort Wayne, new executive director of the Maumee Valley Heritage Corridor Inc., one way to look at this part of America is as a place the Maumee River runs through.
But that, she says, isn’t the perception of most people who live here – and that’s what members of the newly rejuvenated group want to change.
The 130-mile Maumee, Quinn says, has a giant watershed that spans northeast Indiana, northwest Ohio and even part of southern Michigan. With its tributaries, it drains more than 8,300 square miles, an area the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
But geographic and political barriers have all but precluded people from, say, Fort Wayne and Defiance or Perrysburg in Ohio, as seeing themselves as connected.
Sometimes, she says with a smile, it seems there’s a wall at the state of Ohio line.
In reality, Quinn says, the history, the culture and the economics of the communities of the Maumee River Valley are all connected – just as the region itself is linked to the history of America.
The trade route formed by the river made the valley fertile ground for later routes of a canal and railroad. The territory was so prized that the Indians, the French, the British and the Americans all fought for it.
Really, the Maumee Valley is a vital link to telling the story of how we got from 13 colonies to the United States, Quinn explains. It’s a story that’s a history story, but it’s also a cultural story. And you can’t talk about a river and a watershed without it also being an environmental story.
A trained historian known for leading Fort Wayne’s nonprofit historic architecture preservation group ARCH as executive director for 15 years, Quinn says an urge to see the river’s bigger picture arose in the mid-1990s. A small group of people, mostly in Ohio, saw the meandering river corridor as a way of uniting several rural communities and the Toledo metro area, she says.
At the time, National Heritage Corridors were being developed around the country to encourage historic preservation and environmental stewardship of areas where a single site couldn’t tell the whole story, she says. The idea seemed a perfect fit, and organizers originally worked toward getting the designation.
But, Quinn says, a decade later in the midst of a recession, it became clear that Congress wasn’t about to expand the number of such areas. Even though they are not owned or managed by the federal government, they can receive technical and planning advice and some limited funding through the National Park Service and require congressional authorization to form.
So, the Maumee group sought another way to recognize the region – designation of a Maumee Valley Ohio Scenic Byway. This year, the last piece fell into place as the byway, which runs from Defiance to Maumee, was completed on both sides of the river from Napoleon to Maumee.
Now, with the completion of another road, U.S. 24, also known as the Fort-to-Port highway, there’s even more opportunity to see the region as distinct, Quinn says. The new road, she points out, puts downtown Toledo about an hour and 20 minutes’ drive from Fort Wayne – or accessible in less time than downtown Indianapolis.
To encourage discovery, the corridor group now is organizing events to acquaint area residents with the Maumee Valley’s attractions. Last month, about 20 people participated in an outing to the Flat Rock Creek Nature Preserve outside Paulding, Ohio, owned since 2008 by the Fort Wayne-based ACRES land conservancy.
Another natural area, Oaks Opening region near Toledo, has been designated a globally rare ecosystem and One of America’s Last Great Places by the Nature Conservancy.
On Sept. 28, a narrated bus trip from Fort Wayne to Lake Erie will allow residents to view that area and Maumee Bay from the Sandpiper tour vessel.
In October, the group is sponsoring a workshop during a meeting of the Environmental Education Association of Indiana and plans to host a series of public monthly lectures through 2014 and a conference on the region’s trails in April.
It’s a priority topic because of the opportunity to connect several existing trails, Quinn says.
We’re not trying to build trails. I think we want to be the connector of these groups that already do trails, Quinn says. Having a conference where we can talk about the whole system and the story (of the region) as a whole with these trail groups can be a way they can understand the links.
A guidebook, with online and smartphone-ready components, is scheduled for 2015, and a website at www.maumeevalleyheritagecorridor.org has been redesigned and updated.
Jason Kissel, ACRES executive director, says that group, which has three natural areas along the Maumee, welcomes the corridor group’s interest.
ACRES could help by identifying and acquiring natural areas that should be preserved, Kissel says.
Their interest is very much in line with our interest, he says.