When Fort Wayne was originally platted in 1829, it was envisioned that Main Street would be the primary location for commerce and business. The Wabash and Erie Canal changed that and made Columbia Street the central hub of the city for more than 100 years. The canal was also the catalyst that changed Fort Wayne from a village of 1,000 people to a city prominent in the whole Midwest – and with one of the longest and most colorful histories west of the Appalachians.
When Columbia Street was laid out, it was four blocks long – three blocks lying east of Calhoun Street and one block west of Calhoun. The City-County (now Rousseau) Building, Freimann Square, Arts United Center and the Fort Wayne Museum of Art now occupy where East Columbia Street once was. West Columbia Street still very much exists and has come to be known since canal days as "The Landing."
On the west end of Columbia Street was the Orbison Turning Basin, a space wide enough that canal boats could be turned; this was also the main port for Fort Wayne, hence the name, "Landing."
The buildings located on the north side of Columbia Street were originally built to face the canal just to the north. After the canal was abandoned and the land sold for railroad right-of-way, these buildings were actually rebuilt so that the front faced south to Columbia Street. The eventual downfall of the canal was when the railroads came – it is ironic that the first locomotive to come to Fort Wayne was actually brought in on a canal boat and offloaded and re-assembled at The Landing.
While the canal was in full operation – and for many years after it folded in 1883 – Columbia Street remained the No. 1 location for business in Fort Wayne. It was estimated that more than 2,500 businesses have come and gone from the once four-block-long street, including feed stores, blacksmith shops, grocery stores, theaters, dry good stores, cigar factories, barbershops, a number of hotels and on and on. Baking powder and Pinex cough syrup were two of the many products invented or developed on Columbia Street. A 17-year-old telegraph operator came to work on Columbia Street in 1864 but unfortunately was fired because he was too slow in sending Morse code. That young operator later became the most renowned inventor in the world – Thomas Alva Edison. In the early 1900s, businesses and hotels started to locate to the south, but Columbia Street remained the main artery for business until well into the 20th century.
In 1964, Mayor Harold Zeis appointed a Commission for the Preservation of Historic Landmarks; Joan White was named chairwoman. She came to Fort Wayne and worked with The Journal Gazette before marrying Ed White, the founder of Bowmar. Out of this commission, with Joan White in the lead, came not only the Three Rivers Festival but also a complete resurgence of Columbia Street. A lot of this was accomplished by White herself; she bought buildings on The Landing that became The Big Wheel, the Caboose, the Pickle and others. The Landing regained a lot of its original glory as the most outstanding historic street in Fort Wayne for years until the Whites moved to Arizona.
The Downtown Development Trust was formed in 2011 as a not-for-profit to buy vacant or underused property in the downtown area – with the purpose of reselling to new owners for redevelopment. As its first task, the Trust was charged with obtaining options for all the properties that would ultimately comprise the Ash/Skyline Plaza Project at Berry and Harrison streets. After securing the options, the Trust turned them over to the Fort Wayne Redevelopment Commission, which purchased all the real estate encompassing the project now under construction.
For more than a year, the Trust has been purchasing buildings on The Landing. We have completed the purchase of seven buildings and two parking lots, and recently engaged Design Collaborative, a local architectural firm, to do an entirely new concept of what Columbia Street could look like after redevelopment.
This new design envisions a brick street, restaurants and retail establishments on the first floor of the historic buildings with living units or offices in the upper floors. The street would be open during the day for business but closed at night by gates with tables and chairs, umbrellas and bike racks placed in the street with elaborate lighting overhead to give the whole street a festive atmosphere.
With the Ash/Skyline project to the south, the Randall Lofts just completed at the west end of Columbia Street, the Superior Loft project on Superior Street slated to start this year and, most importantly, the riverfront study almost complete, with a planned promenade on the south side of the St. Marys River only a short distance away, The Landing would again be a cornerstone of the great revitalization taking place in downtown Fort Wayne. It is anticipated that The Landing would be a much-visited place for dining and shopping during the day – with a thriving night life.
In the purchase of the historic buildings on The Landing, the Trust has not used any tax dollars but has been assisted by loans from the Community Foundation and the Legacy Fund. The Trust is now moving from the acquisition stage to development and is looking for a developer or developers to bring the plans for the new Landing to reality. Columbia Street, steeped in history, looks to the future once again – as "that Great Street" of commercial prominence. Like it has on so many occasions before, Columbia Street stands ready to rise again.
Mac Parker is president of the Downtown Development Trust. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.