Detroit's Fort Wayne under siege

Cannons still guard the gateway to the old headquarters at Detroit Fort Wayne.

After waiting nearly 150 years for an enemy, Detroit’s venerable Fort Wayne on the city’s  southwest side is under heavy assault.

Burdock, plantain and thistle are taking a firm grip on its earthworks and gun emplacements. Young mulberry trees and fast-growing tree-of-heaven are tearing at its walls just as destructively, if less violently, than hostile cannon.

Brick and stone battlements are weathering away, surrendering to an adversary that military architects in the 1840s probably never foresaw: Neglect.

Few cities in the world can match Detroit’s habit of demolishing its own past.

Virtually nothing survives from the city’s first century– from its founding in 1701 to 1801–when French farmers and soldiers and local Indians forged a unique interdependent culture.

Fort Wayne may be the next casualty.

A group dressed as Civil War soldiers march on the fort’s 12-acre parade ground in 1984. The fort has been closed to the public since 1992.

      Until it was closed to the public in 1992, the fort attracted about 15,000 visitors a year. Many Detroit-area veterans were inducted into military service there.

The fort was built over the years 1844-47 when tensions were high along the border with Canada. There was talk of war with England over a border dispute concerning the Oregon territory and the entire U.S.-Canadian border was being fortified.

The War of 1812 was still a fresh memory. The British captured Detroit during that conflict and local Indian tribes had sided with the British, slaughtering an army of Kentuckians at Monroe.

During Canada’s patriot War of the 1830’s, Canadian revolutionaries attempting to overthrow English rule were sheltered and armed by American sympathizers in Detroit.

With feelings running so high, Detroiters demanded a stronghold to protect the city from British and Canadian assault.

Fort Wayne was built on a military campsite that dated back to 1796. The new fort was named after Gen. Anthony Wayne, who gained fame in the Revolutionary War and later in campaigns against the Indians.

A “salute” cannon at the Fort Wayne museum.

      The threat of war with Canada faded but the new fort grew in importance as the possibility of war with the southern states loomed.

The fort expanded from campsite to full fledged fort status with the outbreak of the Civil War, and became a training ground for volunteers on their way to Civil War battlefields.

No siege ever threatened the base of masonry and brick seven and a half feet thick and none of the six brass cannons were ever used, nor were any of the guns mounted ‘en barbette’ fired over the parapet.

But a sense of drama still lingers.

The fort played a major role in both world wars. During the first world war it served as motor supply, labor, construction and engineer unit headquarters and housed both a motorcycle company and an aero squadron.

The fort was renovated in 1937 by the federal Works Progress Asministration and in WWII it became the largest motor vehicle and parts depot in the world. After the war it served as a recruitment and induction depot until it was decomissioned in 1964 and portions of the site were turned over to the city.

The Detroit Housing Commission took over some of the buildings to house families that had been burned out of their homes during the 1967 Detroit riot. All were gone by 1970.

In 1971 the federal government transferred another 30 acres to the city. The Army Corps of Engineers continued to use 15 acres as a Great Lakes Boatyard.

During the 1970s historic restoration efforts failed to keep up with vandals. But despite this, visitors still trooped through the popular attraction on weekends.

Fort Wayne staffers fire a cannon in an exhibition in 1983. In 1990 the fort’s part-time workers were fired after demanding to be taken on as full-timers with benefits.

      In 1973 the Smithsonian Institution put together an exhibition of Revolutionary War papers at Fort Wayne that drew a greater-than-life-sized portrait of the fort’s namesake.

Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne was so named by British troops during the Revolutionary War because of his unorthodox combate tactics.

“Wayne kept doing unexpected things like taking shortcuts through swamps and popping up with his troops in places the British did not expect him to be,” according to James Ciaramitaro, curator of the 1973 exhibit. Gen. Wayne also took a fort from the British with “a totally unexpected bayonet charge.”

After the Revolution, the British promised to hand over Detroit to the Americans, but they continued to incite their Indian allies around the city. George Washington called on Wayne to stop them.

“He was successful because he changed his tactics and became very cautious in the wilderness,” Ciaramitaro said. “He formed a new army called Anthony Wayne’s Legion, set up like Caesar’s Legion in the Gallic Wars. He studied Caesar and used the same tactics.”

Wayne headed for Detroit building forts along the way and garrisoning them, building a line of support through the wilderness.

He forced the Indians to fight on his terms, who took to calling him “Black Snake, the man who never slept” because they could never take him by surprise.

“At the Battle of Fallen Timbers, just south of Toledo, in 1794, he maneuvered the Indians into a premature attack and defeated them. They were forced to sign the Treaty of Greenville, which ceded Ohio and a strip of land along the Detroit River, all the way to Port Huron. This left the way open to Detroit” Ciaramataro concluded.

Interpreters from Fort Wayne dressed in authentic Civil War uniforms display a Model 1841 field gun at Hart Plaza to celebrate the season opening of the landmark in 1988. Four years later the fort was closed to the public.

      In 1796, Wayne and his Legion marched to Detroit and officially took over the city on July 11.

Wayne died later that same year but not until the county was formed and named after him.

Fort Wayne includes a series of buildings constructed at various periods — homes for soldiers and officers, headquarters buildings, infirmaries, storehouses, etc. Some of them are falling apart, but a few have been impressively restored.

There’s even a small Indian burial mound, about five feet tall and maybe 40 feet in circumference at the base. It’s a faint reminder of a complex of mounds found in the immediate area by the first European visitors, that also included a huge structure at the mouth of the Rouge River some 20 feet high, 300 feet long and 200 feet wide containing hundreds of skeletons and artifacts.

The Great Lakes Indian Museum and the Tuskegee Airmen Museum are located at Fort Wayne. Warehouses on the site are stuffed with historical artifacts, ranging from old cars to authentic costumes. The complex includes a 12-acre parade ground.

The fort also contains a 15-acre museum of earthworks, revetments, walls, tunnels, powder magazine, and old barracks. The entire 96-acre site includes 1,600 feet of water frontage.

In 1977, Fort Wayne curator Dr. William Phenix established a living history program with workers dressed in authentic 1850s military uniforms and civilian costumes conducting tours. They demonstrated cannon blasts and recreated military drills and everyday life each weekend.

In 1990 16 part-time workers overseen by the Detroit Historical Museum with funding from the Detroit Historical Society demanded to become full-time city workers with benefits. They hired labor lawyer Barbara Harvey to press their case at the Michigan Employment Relations Commission.

The city fired them, leaving no one to man the fort.

As the 300th anniversary of the founding of Detroit looms, it would be a shame if another historic treasure was lost to the city through neglect.

Volunteers dressed as Confederate soldiers from Virginia help celebrate Civil Way Day at Fort Wayne in 1973.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)

By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News