Historic Fort Wayne

6053 West Jefferson at the Detroit River in southwest Detroit

Although the United States won its independence in the Revolutionary War, tensions with England remained since Americans presumed that the British wished to overturn the outcome of that war. President Washington assumed that their military defeat of England and the 1783 Treaty of Paris gave the US control of the upper Midwest, including Michigan. The British were reluctant to recognize such a loss of territory, so English troops remained in Fort Lernoult into the 1790s. The British also supplied local Indians with guns and munitions to fight the United States forces. President Washington then appointed the Revolutionary War hero, General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, as commander of the US army with instructions to win US control of Ohio, Michigan and Indiana by defeating the Indians and their British supporters. During summers in the 1790s, US forces—backed by some Indians—fought other Indians. On August 20, 1794, General Anthony Wayne defeated a large body of American Natives at the Battle of Fallen Timbers near Toledo. This greatly weakened the British claim on the upper Midwest and Indian control. On August 3, 1795, General Wayne met leaders of the Chippewa, Delaware, Eel River, Kaskaski, Kickapoo, Miami, Ottawa, Pianheskaw, Pottawatimi, Shawanee, Wea, and Wyandotte tribes in Greenville, Ohio where they signed a treaty surrendering to the US Army and relinquishing many of their claims to land in this part of the upper Midwest. In 1796, Colonel Jean Francois Hamtramck led US troops into Detroit where the British surrendered their Fort.

Peace between the United States and Britain did not last for long. The War of 1812 involved fighting in the East as English forces sought to invade the US and return it to colonial status. Indeed, the British marched on Washington and singed the White House. However, the major battles of the War of 1812 were fought in Lake Erie and along what is now the St. Lawrence Seaway. Once again, the British supplied their Indian allies with weapons and encouraged them to attack the Americans. In 1812, the British once again occupied Detroit for about a year, but the naval victories of Oliver Hazard Perry on Lake Erie and the defeat of British forces near Lake Champaign in 1814 by an army led by General Macomb of Detroit led the British to sue for peace.

In the 1830s, trouble for the British developed in Canada. The French in Quebec had been extremely unhappy with the British rule that was imposed upon them in 1760 and sought independence. In Upper Canada many of the English settlers admired American independence and felt they should end colonialism in Canada. The British sent troops to put down the potential insurrections. They effectively quieted the French in Quebec, but faced stronger opposition from the English in Upper Canada. In the United States, a strong fear arose that after the mighty British military preserved colonialism in Canada, they would cross the border and march into the US for a third war against this country. Detroit was seen as their likely point of invasion because of its proximity to Upper Canada.

In Detroit today, we assume that Americans have always had friendly relations with our neighbors to the South across the river. That was not always the case. Some Americans wished to support Canadian independence and the British military wanted to punish any Americans who thought about coming to Canada to fight. The “Battle of Windsor” took place in December, 1838. About 135 American militants seized a Canadian ship, crossed to Windsor and attacked the British barracks then located there, killing some of the troops, although most of them escaped. Canadian and British militias rapidly organized themselves and marched upon the Americans who then occupied the military facilities in Windsor. Twenty-one of the Americans were killed in the fighting and another four surrendered. They were promptly tried and then executed. People on the US side of the river were appalled by the British execution of those who surrendered. Adding to international tension at this time was a lively dispute over the border in the northwest. The British claimed that their Canadian colony extended down to the present border of Oregon and Washington, while Americans asserted that the border was at the present border of Washington and British Columbia. This controversy gave rise to the militaristic slogan every school child learns: “48’ 40* or fight.”

It seemed likely that another British-US war would flare up in Detroit and be fought around the Great Lakes. However, by the late 1830s, the US military had removed most Indians from the Great Lakes areas and confined others to reservations, including the Indian reservations and tribal lands still located in Michigan in this first decade of the 21st Century.

With this nation’s independence once again at risk, Congress, in 1841, authorized the building of a major military fortress in Detroit. A remote sight was chosen on the Detroit River facing Canada, but at a distance of three and one-half miles from the central point where Cadillac had disembarked 140 years earlier. Captain Montgomery Meigs, a West Point engineer who went on to play an immensely important role for the Union as quartermaster-general in the War between the States, designed the entire fort and the barracks building that you see. From an elevation or an ariel photograph, you will appreciate that this is an immense square fort with thick revetments and very extensive earthworks. Rubble limestone from the Lake Erie islands was used in this construction. Meigs' design was based upon the principles of fortification developed by one of the most famous of the French military engineers, Sebastien Vauban (1633 to 1707). In 1670, Vauban published the definitive book on siege architecture. Meigs incorporated the demi lunes and sally ports that were used in late medieval forts. If the British invaded the United States, they would have to destroy the army as massed in Detroit. But US soldiers would be safely ensconced within the walls of star shaped Ft. Wayne and could easily attack the British from secure positions much as those within a castle could attack invaders. Meigs revetments served the same purpose as a moat. The military fort was completed in 1845.

Then Meigs designed an extremely austere three-and-one-half story barracks in the Georgian style show above. It has a military majesty about it. The building conveys the seriousness of the task facing its early occupants. No efforts were minimized in building this barracks. Meigs designed walls 22 inches thick and divided the structure into five distinct sections with massive fire walls so that if one section of the barracks were burned by the British, that fire would not consume the entire structure. This structure was completed in 1848. Later additional buildings were added including quite a few substantial homes for the commander and officers. Future president Ulysses S. Grant served at this fort but there were no officers residences when he lived in Detroit. His Detroit abode is preserved on the grounds of the former state fair grounds near Woodward and Eight Mile.

No hostile shots were ever fired at or from Fort Wayne. During the Civil War it was a training ground. After that war, the federal government added many buildings. At its peak there were 39 structures on the 83 acre campus of Fort Wayne. By World War I, Fort Wayne became an induction station and, during the Depression, it was used by the Civilian Conservation Corp. In World War II, it was an extremely busy marshalling port for munitions produced in Detroit. The most recently constructed buildings at Fort Wayne were completed in 1931.

By 1949, the Army realized that they did not need a large late Medieval fort in Detroit. There was then a 150-year history of peace with Britain and its former colony. The Army began decommissioning the fort and giving it to the city of Detroit. In the Korean and Vietnamese wars, Fort Wayne served as an induction station, but in 1969, the Army began gaving control of the fort to the City of Detroit with the exception of about nine acres still used by the Army Corps of Engineers. By 1974, the city had control of the fort.

A variety of different plans have been proposed for Fort Wayne in the last half century. There were some efforts to create an Indian museum on the property since a large burial mound is located there. Mayor Coleman Young encouraged the development of a museum at Fort Wayne commemorating the African-American flyers who served as Tuskegee Airman in the war against Germany and Japan. In recent years, the Detroit Historical Museum has superintended Fort Wayne. It is open to the public only on Sundays from Memorial Day until Labor Day.

In some other cities, it is likely that the military fort would become a park while the substantial and attractive officer’s quarters and other building picturesquely perched along the beautiful Detroit River would be converted into expensive condos for the rich. However, Fort Wayne is located in a rather unattractive corner of the city surrounded by old industrial buildings, rail lines and abandoned neighborhoods. From time to time, there is discussion of turning Fort Wayne into a park using resources from either the federal government or from the Clinton-Huron Metropolitan Park Authority. Michigan’s congressional delegation has not yet succeeded in adding a line to the federal budget that would fund a national park at this site.

In early 2015, Governor Snyder announced that the State of Michigan Economic Development Corporation had awarded a contract for $235,000 to the HR & A Advisors firm of New York City to plan a reuse of the fort. Their work was acclaimed since they designed the 2012 Olympic Park in London and their ideas were used to convert the elevated rail line on the west side of Manhattan into the extremely successsful High Line. I do not know what became of that endeavor. By the end of 2016, no report had been issued by HR & A so far as I know.

In Decembber, 2016, Detroit's Kresge Foundation announced that they had contracted with the National Park Foundation for a comprehensive strategic plan to be implemented beginning in 2018. The National Park Foundation is a non-profit organization that works with the National Park Service to promote and expand the country's array of parks. The Kresge expenditure was $265,000 or a bit more than the previous year's expenditure by the state of Michigan. The United State pod of the new Gordie Howe Internation Trade Crossing Bridge will be sited just south of Fort Wayne. The Canadien government will spend 200 to 300 million to erect a customs plaze on West Jefferson opposite Fort Wayne. I do not know the implications of the new bridge for the future of Fort Wayne.

You do not have to go to Europe to see how military engineers thought about defense in the late medieval age. You could go to Quebec city to see the walled fortress that did not protect the French in the 1750s. Or you could walk around Fort Wayne on a sunny summer Sunday and imagine what Montgomery Meigs thought when he built this massive structure to protect the United States.

Fort Wayne is the third majority military fortress located in Detroit. Cadillac built a fort and called it Fort Detroit du Ponchitrain, in honor of his patron who headed French naval forces in 1700. When the British took over Detroit in 1760, they built a new fort and named it after one of their officers, Fort Lernault. When Colonel Hamtramck and the Americans evicted the British in 1796, they used the British fort but went back to Cadillac’s name: Fort Detroit. Governor Shelby of Kentucky raised 4,000 men from his Commonwealth to fight for the United States in the War of 1812, many of them serving and dying near Detroit. (See War of 1812 Dead Memorial located at Michigan and Washington Boulevard) In his honor, Fort Detroit was renamed Fort Shelby. This fort was decommissioned in 1826 since wars against the Indians were moving away from Michigan toward Wisconsin and Minnesota. Fort Wayne was named after the Revolutionary War general who not only helped defeat but British, but secured the Midwest for the US by defeating and expelling the American Natives.

Architect for the Fort and the Barracks: Montgomery C. Meigs
Architectural style for the fort: French military style of that era
Architectural style for the barracks: Austere Georgian with one federal style decorative element– the elliptical window on the front
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P 25117, Listed February 19, 1978.
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Erected 1977
National Register of Historic Sites: #71000425, Listed May 6, 1971
Advocacy and historic organization: http://www.historicfortwaynecoalition.com/
Picture: January, 2003; Ren Farley
Use in 2016: Abandoned military fort but open on many week-ends for events and visitors
Description updated: December, 2016

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