Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Finding Connections Via Waterways


Part of the story of our forbears may possibly be unearthed by seeking information on what made them decide to move from one residence to another. What were the connectors? What made them choose to move? Why were they going to their chosen destination? What happened along the way? Did that make any difference in their plans?

I never was quite sure how my husband’s great-grandfather found his way from his hometown of Lafayette, Indiana, to Fort Wayne, the residence he chose as an adult. Nowadays, it is a simple matter in North America to travel from city to city, owing to the interstate highway system. Yet even today, for travelers from Lafayette to Fort Wayne, Indiana, the closest approximation to that convenience would be to take US Route 24—though even that road hardly is a direct line between the two cities.

John Kelly Stevens, though, did not travel the American Interstate system in his move. He accomplished this change of residence not in 2011, but in 1879—a vastly different scenario for cross-state travel.

Though John Kelly’s father had arrived in Lafayette via the Mississippi from New Orleans, I had hardly given river transportation a thought when pondering the route his son might have taken. I often wondered what connection the two cities might even have had that would draw this immigrant’s son to the opposite side of the state from his father’s chosen landing place, but never found any clues.

An article in the blog for the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society provided me a hint: the Wabash-Erie Canal. Originally conceived as a commercially-viable transportation artery from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River, the canal route was incrementally expanded to that point by connecting shorter segments of the project. By 1841, the canal had opened its waterways from Fort Wayne to Lafayette.

The canal system became a route affording merchants and farmers ample trade opportunities. While the increased shipping to and from points along the route to New Orleans certainly was a boon for the city of Lafayette, it also provided an opportunity for Lafayette citizens to connect with points east on the canal. Perhaps that was the instigation for John Kelly Stevens to head to Fort Wayne.

Looking further into the history of the canal, however, it became apparent that John Kelly’s arrival in 1879 would not have been by canal. The canal lands were sold and the waters drained—mostly owing to complaints about all the problems stagnant water engenders—by 1876, three years prior to his move. However, some of the land, particularly through Fort Wayne, was bought by the New York, Chicago, and Lake Erie Railway—a token of their superiority of service in railroads’ competition with canal systems throughout the canal era of American history. Perhaps that became the connector in transporting John Kelly from his boyhood home to his adult residence. This railroad later became the Nickel Plate Line for which some of our Kelly relatives worked through the remainder of that century.

Though I’m still not sure I’ve arrived at any conclusive evidence about what drew John Kelly Stevens to Fort Wayne from Lafayette, Indiana, this little exercise reminded me to not make assumptions about the way people traveled, or the routes they chose, based on what we take for granted today. As an outsider looking at a map of Indiana today, it seems that transportation routes circle around the hub of the capital city, Indianapolis, and that other cities radiate from that center like spokes of a wheel. While it is a simple matter to take the interstate route from Lafayette to Indianapolis, or Fort Wayne to Indianapolis, connections from these cities to each other seem less obvious or not directly available. Based on that observation, I was always puzzled about what might have drawn John Kelly from his city to the other, as there didn’t seem to be any direct links. Looking at the transportation systems of that time, however, highlights other possibilities and makes different narratives more convincing.

I’ll still have to work on my research to unearth the reason this Stevens ancestor made his move, but at least I’ve freed myself of some assumptions that blinded me to possibilities.

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