21Country: What’s the story behind Fort Wayne’s smallest park?
At 0.02 acres, Orff Park protects the legacy of the Old Aqueduct Club
FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) - In the mid-1800′s, the Wabash and Erie Canal made Indiana “the crossroads of America”, before the modern highway and interstates system existed.
According to the Wabash and Erie Canal Museum in Delphi, construction began in Fort Wayne in 1832.
Two decades later, the 468 mile route connected Lake Erie to the Ohio River in Evansville.
Now, a water route would allow transportation of goods from the New York Harbor, to the Gulf of Mexico.
“You could ship a bag of oats from Fort Wayne, to Paris here,” Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi explained, “and you could not do that before.”
In 1843, Samuel Edsall built a mill alongside the St. Marys River, near the area of Main Street, Rockhill, and Thieme Streets.
Water from the canal powered the machinery.
The mill was later acquired by John Orff.
At .02 acres, Orff Park, a small plot of land in the area where the mill once stood, is the City of Fort Wayne’s smallest park.
It’s home to a monument, topped off with two young barefoot boys, with a message engraved in stone “Let’s Go Swimmin’”.
It’s a sole reminder of the Old Aqueduct club that faded from existence years ago.
The Wabash and Erie Canal closed in 1874.
“Canal boat traffic dried up,” Castaldi told us, “but not the four feet deep canal water.”
“Water remained in the aqueduct which carried boats across the St. Marys River,” he continued. “Typically young boys of the day found swimming in the canal, especially in the area of the aqueduct irresistible.”
The aqueduct decayed, and was removed in 1882.
Twenty years later, those boys, now men, formed the Old Aqueduct Club.
Membership requirements included: living on Fort Wayne’s west side before the 1870′s, was over the age of 45, and swam in the aqueduct as children.
“Members met annually to relive the stories of the old aqueduct days, and by the 1930′s there were as many as 500 members who claimed that they had met the membership requirements,” Castaldi said.
“However, ending in 1955, there were only 11 members who could attend the club’s 43rd annual dinner,” he added, “and the Old Aqueduct Club faded out of existence.”
In 1927, the monument which sits at Orff Park, was completed.
The historian says, mentions of the Old Aqueduct Club are riddled through Fort Wayne and Allen County’s history.
It was a right of passage, for many of the Summit City’s founders.
“Nobody would want to swim in that canal water according to the people that reported about it,” he shared. “It was sort of muddy, you didn’t know what was in it. On some places on the canal line, any kids that were ever caught by the canal were usually disciplined by their parents.”
Remnants of the Wabash and Erie Canal are scattered through the state, and 21Country.
Castaldi wrote the information for the markers at Rockhill Park.
The Towpath Trail weaves along the historic transportation route.
As for the monument and Orff Park, Castaldi recommends a visit.
“Spend some time to see if you recognize any one of the over 300 members who’s name is listed on the Old Aqueduct Memorial plaque.”
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