Detroit is a mysterious city.
Filled with hidden gems galore and deeply laced with history, Detroit is like some kind of unexplored video game realm awaiting a protagonist whom, swept up in the spirit of adventure, eagerly unearths its treasures to win the game.
One such beautiful example of Detroit’s fascinating history lies in the oft overlooked neighborhood of Delray in the Southwest part of the city, near the cavernous underground salt mines.
Between spooky Zug Island and the old Boblo Docks, stretched out along the Detroit River in an area soon to be populated by the nearly 2-mile long Gordie Howe International Bridge, is historic Fort Wayne.
This beautiful national treasure is also located down the street from Flor-Dri (5450 W. Jefferson), which was once the original site of Michigan’s first printing press in 1809, thanks to Gabriel Richard.
Fort Wayne is an old military fort comprised of around 40 buildings and sits on 96 acres.
87 acres are owned by the City of Detroit Recreation Department & run by the all-volunteer Historic Fort Wayne Coalition (HFWC).
9 acres are owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is referred to as the Detroit Boatyard.
Exploring the HFWC’s Two Military Research Libraries
I’m exploring the libraries at Fort Wayne with Will Eichler and Tom Berlucchi.
Will and Tom are the two fearless leaders of the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition, a non-profit group of around 20 volunteers who run weekend operations at the fort and whom have been fixing up the fort and fighting to save it from neglect and decay, since Tom founded the coalition in 2001.
Will and Tom are historians and historical preservationists. They are Civil War reenactors and passionate about Living History and honoring the richness of Detroit’s military history, which is why they’re created and curated two outstanding (and growing) military-themed libraries here at the fort.
“The two military reference libraries here are not lending libraries, they’re private appointment-only and designed for research. We’re currently accepting donations of military books and we’re hoping to open the libraries up to the general public sometime in the next five years.”
“I would say our largest concentration of books is Civil War material. Our next largest segment is World War II. Beyond that, we have military-related books, maps and ephemera from all over the world and all different time periods.”
“These libraries help deepen and expand our appreciation of the tremendous amount of history here at Fort Wayne.”
“In 1812, the British landed at Fort Wayne on the spot where kids play soccer nowadays.”
“1838 was the Patriot War. Some Detroiters sailed from here into Amherstburg, Ontario on a schooner and shelled Fort Malden and they also took the barracks in Windsor. At the time, there was a revolution going on within Canada. Officially, the USA stayed neutral, except for some private individuals who got involved. Some were executed, some were sent to the Hudson Bay Barges.”
“Then in 1840, there was an initiative by the government to build a series of Northern Frontier forts and the property of Fort Wayne was acquired at that time.”
“Fort Wayne was designed by Lt. Meigs and construction began in 1843. It was finally completed in 1852. The fort was actually dormant until the Civil War erupted, then it reopened. In the interim, an old Irish couple were the caretakers.”
“We’ve been trying to fix up the fort and bring it alive with military reenactments in ways that are as historically accurate as possible. It’s difficult to generate revenue for preservation. The Fort Adams Trust in Rhode Island might be a good model to follow in terms of making Fort Wayne sustainable long-term.”
“What I love is that everybody has a different reason for wanting to visit Fort Wayne. Part of the joy of interpreting this place is finding out for yourself the best way you personally connect with history.”
“In terms of maintenance, we’re looking to establish a professional service agreement with the City of Detroit. This would provide much needed funds for our ongoing restoration efforts.”
“And for the record, Fort Wayne is not a star-shaped fort.”
“It’s a four-bastioned square fort with an external fortification, which is the 5th part, thus, it’s technically not a true star-shaped fort.”
Who are Will and Tom?
“Being apart of the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition is my passion.”
“My interest in Living History started when I was 15. I read a book called ‘Rifles for Watie’, a fantastic kid’s book about the Civil War. I read it and I’ve been hooked ever since.”
“I attended the James Madison College of International Affairs at Michigan State University, where I studied political theory. I have a 1,000-volume personal library at home, mainly Civil War and political books.”
“Currently I work in television as camera and Steadicam operator on NBC’s Chicago Fire.”
“I also shoot a bi-weekly video series called Civil War Digital Digest where we cover all aspects of Civil War History.”
“My first exposure to Fort Wayne was back in 1974 when I started doing Civil War reenactments here with the Loomis Battery.”
“In 2001, I founded the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition, a non-profit of which I’m chairman. In 2003, we were granted our 501(c)(3) status on Christmas Eve.”
“Prior to that I served in the U.S. Navy from 1979-83.”
“I’m most interested in documenting the history of the Red Scare in Detroit during the 1920’s-30’s. We held 300 Communist prisoners right here at Fort Wayne from 1920-21. It’s a largely unknown history lesson.”
Why is Fort Wayne Historically Important?
The land that Fort Wayne sits on used to be known as the Springwells Mounds, a series of old Native American burial mounds dating to at least 1,000 AD. Only one mound still exists at Fort Wayne.
During the 1700’s, the area was a Potawatomi Indian village until around 1780, when they moved away. At the time, the area was prized for being a large sand hill and thus, a good vantage point.
In 1781, Irish fur trader, John Askin, moved to what is now Fort Wayne. He traded furs here until he became Justice of the Peace in Detroit from 1789-1802. Then he moved to Canada.
Shortly after the War of 1812 started, the British entered the US via Sandwich, Canada and landed where Fort Wayne is now and stayed here for over one year.
In 1815, the Treaty of Spring Wells, a 6-foot long parchment roll, was signed here by eight Indian tribes and future president Gen. William Henry Harrison, formally establishing peace between the native tribes and the new occupiers of the Michigan Territory.
Then in 1841, Congress wanted to build fourteen Northern Frontier Forts as a barrier against potential British attacks. Based on the survey of Lt. Macomb, they selected this spot for Fort Wayne, because it was the closest point on the Detroit River to Canada.
Fort Wayne was constructed over an eight-year period from 1843-51. It was named in honor of American Revolutionary War hero Gen. “Mad Anthony” Wayne.
During this time, future president Ulysses S. Grant lived nearby at 253 East Fort Street, Detroit from 1849-51. It is not officially known if Grant spent any time at Fort Wayne but the general consensus is that he most likely did due to his military involvement and close proximity to the fort.
On April 12, 1861, the Civil War exploded when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumpter, South Carolina. Two days later, President Lincoln began mobilizing the Union into action.
Fort Wayne immediately became a training center and infantry garrison for Michigan’s 1st Infantry Regiment, including the Coldwater Cadets, some 780 men, who fought in the First Battle of Bull Run.
Several other regiments, totaling an estimated 14,000 troops, passed through Fort Wayne during the Civil War.
In 1885, Springwells Township, where Fort Wayne was located, was annexed to the city of Detroit.
During World War I, over 500 African American troops were stationed at Fort Wayne.
In the 1930’s, the Great Depression hit the country hard and hundreds of homeless families lived in the old Civil War-era limestone barracks.
During World War II, the city of Detroit was the “Arsenal of Democracy.” Some 2,000 people moved to Fort Wayne and helped coordinate the supply of military vehicles and tanks to the U.S. military overseas via the Fort Wayne Ordinance Depot.
Fort Wayne was also used as a training and induction center. POW’s from Italy were housed here. Several of them, including Eduardo Barbieri, became permanent residents of Detroit after the war ended.
In 1949, the U.S. Federal Government officially transferred ownership of Fort Wayne to the City of Detroit and the property was run by the City of Detroit Historical Commission.
During the Cold War, Nike Ajax missiles were installed here in 1957 and replaced by Nike Hercules missiles in 1959.
The Fort served as an induction center during the Vietnam War.
In 1967, Fort Wayne was officially deactivated.
From 1967-71, families whose homes were burned down in the Detroit Riots, lived in the old limestone barracks.
Over 200 years after its construction, the fort was officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.
The empty fort fell into decline and decayed for almost four decades before the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition stepped in in 2001. Then in 2006, the City of Detroit Recreation Department assumed ownership.
Unknown Facts about Fort Wayne
“Fort Wayne still has the original limestone barracks from 1845 and also the original 1880’s houses on Officer Row.”
“There used to be a cemetery here. Over 150 graves were moved to nearby Woodmere Cemetery (9400 W. Fort St, Detroit) around 1896.”
“Also, not many people know this, but there were three jails, called Guard Houses, on-site here at Fort Wayne. They weren’t here all at once, so it depends on the decade.”
“In 1887, a man named Arthur Stone tried escaping Fort Wayne and Sgt. Clark shot him dead here.”
“A woman named Elsie Woline committed suicide in Building 108, the Commandant’s Building. She was African American in the employ of Captain French and was jilted by a lover. She took her own life by drinking carbolic acid.”
“One of the most incredible things about Fort Wayne is that we’ve had somewhere between 23-27 Medal of Honor recipients tour the fort, including Surgeon Irwin, a U.S. Army surgeon during the Apache Wars, whom had one of the first ever-issued.”
“My personal goal is to obtain copies of all of these medals and display them here with stories.”
“Tom Custer, George’s little brother, was in the 6th Michigan Cavalry and was the only person in the entire Civil War to win two Medals of Honor.”
Annual Civil War Reenactments @ Fort Wayne
“In the library here, we have a framed photo of Texans retreating from Maryland to Virginia after the Battle of Antietam, which was the single bloodiest day in American history.”
“We also have a ton of great Civil War books in the reference library, including a series of pamphlet-size blue books, which talk about small arms used by Michigan troops in the Civil War.”
“Our reenactments are extremely specific recreations. The soldiers even stay in the original barracks and pay in period script, not modern money.”
“What does it for me, what brings history alive, is getting to walk on the same floors, the same stairways that those soldiers did. Thinking of how many thousands of people have passed through here over the years, it’s incredible.”
“During our reenactment, Maj. Gen. Israel Richardson, killed during the Battle of Antietam and whose grave is under a big oak tree at Oak Hill Cemetery in Pontiac, Michigan, his original jacket was here in the museum inside our Visitors Center.”
“The 2nd Michigan Regiment is here and we garrison the fort the way it was in the 1860’s.”
“I’m also hoping to have my documentary about Fort Wayne completed at some point this year. The documentary is produced by my own company, Ravelin Films.”
“I cried back when we opened the barracks for the very first time and the Union reenactors marched through. It was a touching moment.”
“I also cried when we fired a salute with real canons here in honor of a man named Luiz who drowned in Lake Erie back in 2008. Luiz went to Southwest High School and played soccer here and a ton of his friends and family came out for the memorial.”
“As for the fort, I’m a preservationist but I’m also realistic. It’s not all going to be saved. We still have WWII-era electrical here, no insulation on the power lines. The plumbing needs updating. There’s probably $250 million dollars’ worth of restoration needed. But we’ll continue doing what we can.”
“If you haven’t been to Fort Wayne yet, make plans right now to come visit us. It’s a must-see destination!”
To donate your military books to Fort Wayne, please contact:
6325 West Jefferson Ave.
Detroit, MI 48209
Historic Fort Wayne Coalition
Annual Civil War Reenactment (2nd weekend in June)
Civil War Digital Digest (bi-weekly; run by Will Eichler)
Hold My Horse: A Short Film about Israel Richardson by Will Eichler
Detroit Parks & Rec
National Register of Historic Places (Fort Wayne tracking # 71000425)
Civil War Medal of Honor database (1,522 recipients)