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Journeys of Discovery: How the city of Fort Wayne saved itself

Kate Virag
Rebeckah Nolan (left) interviews Dave Sholl

Journeys associate producer Rebecca Nolan reports from Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she learns about how the city is returning to its rivers and revitalizing downtown. The St. Joseph, St. Marys and Maumee rivers are the reason the city was founded. The place where Fort Wayne sits today used to be called Kekionga, the Miami tribe's largest village. When Europeans came to the area in the 17th century, the place where the three rivers met became an important trading post.

This show was originally broadcast August 12, 2019 and is reposted as a “best-of-the-best” podcast in celebration of Journeys of Discovery’s 30th anniversary producing on-air and digital media podcasts featured on KCBX and NPR One.

In 1794, American general Anthony Wayne seized the land from the Miami and established a fort, which he named after himself, and Fort Wayne, Indiana was born.

Over the years Fort Wayne has had a rocky relationship with its rivers, because although they remained important for trade and industry, they were also problematic. In the 1900s, a series of devastating floods nearly destroyed the town, and bit by bit, the town began to distance itself from the rivers. The worst flood in recent memory swept over Fort Wayne in March of 1982, when river water rose dramatically over three days. Levees became so waterlogged they started to leak, and thousands of people were evacuated from their homes.

Fort Wayners pitched in to try and keep the waters at bay. Over 5,000 volunteers, including many high school students, spent days filling more than a million sandbags. Their efforts are credited with saving the city.

The resilience of Fort Wayners during this time earned the town the moniker ‘The City that Saved Itself." To read more on the story of the 1982, and to see photos, click here

After the flood, dykes were reinforced and made higher, and hundreds of people who had lived along the riverfront were relocated. But today, Fort Wayne residents are looking at the river banks with new eyes, as a place that can bring industry and life back to the town. The rivers are now at the heart of the city’s downtown revitalization initiative. 

Follow the links below for more information about projects underway to help revitalize downtown Fort Wayne:

You are invited to subscribe to the Lowell Thomas Award-winning travel show podcast, Journeys of Discovery with Tom Wilmer, featured on the NPR Podcast DirectoryApple Podcast, the NPR One App & Twitter: TomCWilmer. Instagram: Thomas.Wilmer. Member of the National Press Club in Washington D.C. Underwriting support provided by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

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