New life, national park designation sought for Fort Wayne

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

When Maurice Imhoff joins other Civil War-era re-enactors at Historic Fort Wayne each year, he can’t help but feel awed by its history.

He knows the significance of the storied site, which has stood sentry for centuries along the Detroit River, first as the principal Michigan border defense against British Canada, historians say. An attack never came, but the fort is entrenched in the region's history.

“It’s a part of Detroit," Imhoff said, "that should never be forgotten and lost."

The site has long been talked about for preservation by the city and state, and now, perhaps, the federal government as the development of the Gordie Howe International Bridge takes shape across the street on Detroit's southwest side. Supporters see new opportunities to recapture the attention the grounds have held for schoolchildren on field trips and others who trekked there in search of history.

Two lawmakers have launched a petition, pushing for its designation as a national park. The title, they say, would give the aging, 80-plus acre complex on West Jefferson an infusion of federal funding that could spark restoration and redevelopment in a bid to attract more visitors.

"The time is now to restore the site and end years of deterioration, all while generating jobs and tourism dollars for Detroit,” said state Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit.

Chang has joined Detroit Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López in spearheading the petition with the hope of convincing the city to turn over the property to the federal government. The petition has collected more than 7,600 signatures.

The move comes as Detroit leaders and others explore ways to revitalize the historic gem, open from May to October.

"Fort Wayne is an extraordinarily significant site that has influenced our nation from long before even the creation" of the United States, said Scott Bentley, superintendent of River Raisin National Battlefield Park in Monroe. Bentley represented the National Park Service in talks with the city.

The goal in seeking a federal designation is to secure backing, and funding, to create a destination like Gettysburg or the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, which attract hundreds of thousands visitors each year, they say. The designation would create Michigan’s sixth national park.

Regardless, Chang said, there have been "too many years of deterioration at the fort."

"... Given all of rich history there, I think that needs to be protected,” she said.

The idea for the petition was sparked after Chang and Castañeda-López met in 2015 with Detroit residents.

“Many residents, in and outside of my district, have shared their fond personal memories of Historic Fort Wayne with me," Chang said. "Fort Wayne is an amazing site with historical significance for indigenous communities, veterans and many more."

The women say another project years in the making nearby, the Gordie Howe International Bridge, could reinvigorate interest and solidify plans to connect to a network of pedestrian trails and bike paths underway in the city with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Historic Fort Wayne has attracted thousands of visitors each year since opening to the public in the 1970s as an attraction with exhibits, outdoor programs and special events.

Support from Michigan residents could help, but the path to becoming part of the National Park System, which includes battlefields and military parks, is filled with hurdles.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said National Park Service officials have told him "that if it were designated without any federal appropriation that they would not have any money to do anything with it. ...I have no desire to turn it over to the federal government if they don’t have any money to put into it. As soon as they tell us those funds are available, I’d be very interested in having that conversation.”

The National Parks Conservation Association last month opposed a proposed budget cut for the National Park Service, citing the impact on staffing, preservation and needed repairs. Even before the government shutdown, national parks faced an estimated $12 billion maintenance backlog.

River Raisin Superintendent Bentley said it's difficult to estimate what federal funding might flow to Detroit since each park "is different and evaluated based on the complexity and scope of that site."

Alternatives, though, including classification as an affiliated area of the National Park Service, would allow the fort to receive at least some financial support, a 2013 Congressional Research Services Report says. It's not easy: Becoming a part of the National Park Service and finding congressional support and funding, the analysis adds, is "generally regarded as difficult."

There have been other attempts to revamp the site, which since its opening in the 1970s attracts an estimated 150,000 visitors annually. It houses the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum, hosts re-enactments, seasonal flea markets and concerts as well as youth soccer league matches.  

A master plan the Detroit City Council approved in 2003 pegged restoration costs for the fort, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, at more than $50 million. In 2008, the city said utilities and water usage cost $298,000, nearly all of the $310,000 annual operating budget from the city's Department of Parks & Recreation.

In 2015, New York City-based HR&A Advisors Inc. was hired to devise ways to preserve the fort's history while finding other uses for the site, such as housing or office space. 

Consultants who met with residents that year floated multiple options, including a cultural and recreational park featuring sports, arts, open spaces and trails, waterfront access and creative work space. The study's role in future plans is unclear. 

In late 2016, the National Park Service and its charity arm, the National Park Foundation, announced a revitalization project with the city. The Kresge Foundation awarded a $265,000 grant for developing a strategic plan and creating a program for the city to renovate more than 30 military buildings at the site, coordinators said. The status of those efforts is unclear.

Whatever else lands on the site of the fort or how it is renovated, deed restrictions determine what can be allowed, Bentley said.

Brad Dick, Detroit’s group executive for services and infrastructure, acknowledges the challenges that restrictions pose when it comes to mapping out the future.

“The planning process supported by the National Parks Foundation is an attempt to clarify different paths forward for this historic and recreational site," he said. 

What emerges, though, from any plan likely will reflect contemporary preservation trends.

“Traditionally, as the historic preservation movement has matured, it has gone from single buildings" to including surroundings, said Stephen Vogel, a former architecture professor at the University of Detroit Mercy who served on the Mackinac Island State Park Commission. “It’s a broader view of preservation. Now cultural landscapes are very popular.”

Two options planners could examine, Vogel said: modeling the site after Fort Mackinac or featuring the fort as a centerpiece among  other historic sites in Metro Detroit.

The land has played a role in the area's story.

 American Indians buried their dead on the site 1,000 years ago. A 1768 map shows a Potawatomi Indian village occupied the land. The tribe was among several Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac invited in 1710 to settle near what was the first area fort for the French fur trade, according to the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition, the group that oversees and preserves the grounds. 

Later, it was the setting for the treaty that ended the War of 1812. 

The property and its fort built in the 1840s went on to serve military forces during all American-involved conflicts through the Vietnam War.

An estimated 500 African-American troops were stationed there in 1918, during World War I, and Fort Wayne played a key role in World War II with shipping vehicles and supplies, the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition said. 

Peter Karpawich, a Wayne State University professor who has participated in re-enactments there, recalls undergoing a military physical exam in 1969 at barracks buildings where a visitors parking lot now stands. He started volunteering at the site in the 1980s and has watched as re-enactments and popular evening lantern and Christmas tours were added.

He has also watched as the United States' "unique aspects of history are quickly forgotten." 

"Very few cities still maintain  'historical districts' to preserve architecture and local history," he said. "Although cities like Boston and Philadelphia still maintain small sections of their past, most don’t. And those historical sections often help define the city and what people want to see when they visit.  

"Historic Fort Wayne is an important reminder of the 'Old Northwest' in the development of this country. Detroit hasn’t always been just about the automobile. At one time, it was had strategic importance for Great Lakes trade."

Imhoff started participating in annual events at the site several years ago with the 102nd United States Colored Troops Company B – Black History Group. He now dons a blue wool uniform from the 19th century to join drills and marches. “It really takes you back,” he said.

Still, Imhoff has noticed overgrown grass and structures falling into disrepair. That’s why he and his costumed comrades welcome a national park designation.

“It will definitely build it back up. It needs the support,” he said. “Re-enactors and the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition — we can  only do so much.”

Staff Writer Breana Noble and Associated Press contributed.