The former Bowser headquarters office building on Creighton Avenue, which in recent years served as Fort Wayne Police headquarters, is now vacant and also awaiting a date with the wrecker's ball despite efforts to save it. As for the Wayne Building, however, it's simply in the wrong place — or the right place, if you're looking for a place to sink a 60-feet-in-diameter shaft 200 feet into bedrock.
Matthew Wirtz, City Utilities' chief engineer, said the location will make it easy to pump water and sewage from the tunnel into the adjacent Water Pollution Control Plant, which will send the treated sludge to holding ponds further to the east. The city had attempted to buy the property from Property Max MMXIV LLC but was forced to use its power of eminent domain when a deal could not be reached. The amount council has been asked to set aside was determined by a panel of appraisers, Wirtz said, although the city will incur additional undetermined costs to remove pollutants from underground tanks and other sources.
"That's pretty common in old industrial sites," he added.
But for decades, the presence of three worldwide leaders in the pumping industry made Fort Wayne very uncommon.
Sylvanus Freelove Bowser started it all, of course, founding the company that bore his name in 1885 after inventing the world's first self-measuring pump. By 1916, the company had sales of $6.5 million and employed 1,200 people. Wayne was an offshoot, beginning operations in 1891 and two years later won a gold medal at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago as the maker of the best self-measuring oil pump on the market. Wayne also produced the first gasoline pump with a visible dial and in 1933 revolutionized the industry with a pump that automatically computed the dollar amount and the gallons pumped.
Wayne, in turn, gave birth to the city's third pump maker in 1918 when its general manager, Ralph Diserens, started a new company with the help of a Norwegian named John Tokheim. The former Tokheim plant near Wayne Trace and New Haven Avenue still exists and is home to various tenants.
Soon, however, the site of the stately old Bowser office and a couple of adjacent industrial buildings could be reduced to a vacant lot. And the Wayne site will be the site of the huge entrance shaft and a smaller shaft also serving the tunnel, which when complete in 2021 or so will stretch five miles beneath the city, terminating near Foster Park. The tunnel will collect stormwater and raw sewage now handled by combined sewers that spill into the rivers during heavy rains, taking it to the plant for safe treatment instead. That will reduce the number of so-called "combined sewer overflows" by 90 percent, bringing Fort Wayne into compliance with federal mandates.
Although the tunnel itself will be created by a huge boring machine costing millions of dollars, the shafts will be dug conventionally and will allow pieces of the boring machine to be lowered for final assembly. Work on the entry shafts could begin this summer, Wirtz said.
It will be a triumph of modern engineering, but a remnant of older but no less important technology will be lost in the process — a building described simply as being located in a "derelict industrial area" in documents submitted to council. The building is indeed derelict, but the history it helped create, and the automotive renaissance it fueled, will live on and should not be forgotten. As History Center Education Director Roseann Coomer told The News-Sentinel before the 1994 debut of an exhibit titled "Fuel for Thought: Filling Up in Fort Wayne," the founding of the three major companies did indeed make Fort Wayne "the pump capital of the world."
Maybe that was the type of innovative, can-do spirit Baltimore developer Josh Parker had in mind recently when he advised skeptics not to doubt his proposed $300 million redevelopment of the vacant General Electric campus.
“Anybody who says it can’t happen here," he said, "doesn’t know the history of Fort Wayne.”
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 461-8355.