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Frank Gray

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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Sean O’Brien, a member of the Historic Fort Wayne Inc. board, shows blueprints that burned in a Tuesday fire.

Historic fort needs saving again after building fire

Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Thomas Grant, left, treasurer of Historic Fort Wayne Inc., and volunteer Chris Miller survey fire damage inside the blacksmith building.

Twelve years ago, supporters of the deteriorating Old Fort were fighting for their lives, figuratively, trying to save the replica of the original Fort Wayne, built in 1976 for the bicentennial.

Plenty of people with influence saw no sense in keeping the rotting structure. It needed to be razed and the land put to some productive use, some said.

People trying to save the fort had nothing but ideas, no money and little influence.

Somehow, though, they saved the place. It’s been shored up. Additional buildings have been constructed, and events are held there regularly. Last year, 18,000 visitors walked through the main gates, some surprised to see that it was still there because they thought it had been torn down. And that doesn’t count the people who just snooped around the outbuildings, which have grown to include a bakery and blacksmith-carpentry shop and other buildings.

Then on Tuesday, the blacksmith shop caught fire.

The fire actually didn’t start in the blacksmith shop, a part of the building that hadn’t been used in 10 days. It started in the carpentry shop, which does not have electricity, in an area that contained a lot of wood but no linseed oil or other easily combustible materials.

I talked to Sean O’Brien, who says he’s the sole remaining member of the original group that came up with a plan to save the fort more than a decade ago and got people to listen.

Like everyone else, he’s just waiting to see what the fire department has to say about the cause of the fire.

He’s spending his time lamenting what was lost in the fire.

Among the scraps of destruction that could be found scattered on the ground last week were charred remnants of the blueprints for the fort. They’d been kept in the carpentry shop. Fortunately, O’Brien says, the Parks Department still has a copy of the blueprints, so they aren’t lost forever.

But old blacksmith tools, some 200 years old, were destroyed in the fire. They’ll never see those again, O’Brien said.

The building can be salvaged and is insured through the city, but Historic Fort Wayne Inc. ( www.oldfortwayne.org), the nonprofit that runs the fort, is responsible for the deductible, which O’Brien says is not small, though he isn’t sure exactly how much it is.

That’s an expense for the organization, which survives on donations visitors drop into collection boxes at the fort.

The fire has the potential to be a terrible blow to the fort.

But if anything heartening has come out of last week’s event, it is the response of the community.

A man who said he has a barn full of old tools in Ohio offered to replace what tools he can, O’Brien said.

Individuals and corporations came forward and offered to do whatever they could, from helping with demolition to helping with reconstruction, from donating money to supplying materials.

“All in the last 48 hours,” O’Brien said Thursday. “I’m surprised how everyone stepped up. I’m tickled. We were blown away.

“We’re looking for donations to help cover the deductible,” O’Brien said.

It says something about what the complex has become. “More and more, it’s recognized as an asset,” O’Brien said.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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