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A Story of City Building Behind the Harry Baals Joke (Updated)

By July 7, 2014August 6th, 2014No Comments

What does the city’s largest block party, a famous old train, and a big joke about Fort Wayne have in common? Everything.

Since collaborating with A Better Fort  in 2011 on the successful “My City” music video, the organization has sponsored a block party in the 800 Block of Calhoun Street in Fort Wayne for the past three years. This wall-to-wall electronic music fest, known as House4aHouse, has raised over $10,000 for the Mad Anthonys Children’s Hope House. Thousands pack the street for an incredibly positive night and as our friend Logan says in our video below, there is nothing else in Fort Wayne like it.

Just as the My City music video did much to inform and alter negative perceptions about Fort Wayne, the all-ages House4aHouse event has done much to prove that things are “happening” in this town, and that they’re powered by twenty-somethings that are not only giving back to their hometown but also investing in the community in order to encourage others to stick around and throw in.

There are efforts, events, and organizations everywhere proving that with a little tenacity, this rust belt city can shine up like a new penny. We’ve always been fond of referring to A Better Fort as the brick-layers – from community driven hip-hop videos, urban farming efforts, charity basketball games, and more – they just go and make stuff happen.

At Lynchpin, we’ve long loved the city’s story and are especially passionate about the new directions that story is taking. So, when Fort Wayne became the rear-end of jokes revolving around a former mayor’s name, we and A Better Fort took some umbrage. And that’s where A Better Fort got the name for this year’s block party: Baals.

You see, when the city began exploring names for a new city/county building, it opened up the process to public voting and the top ranking name was the “Harry Baals Government Center.” That’s right. Baals.

Haw Haw

Yeah, we get it. Harry Baals. Haw haw.

In no short order, the internet, major news outlets, and even the Jimmy Kimmel Show were in on the gag.  This local news story does a good job of summing up the kerfuffle.

But consider this: Harry Baals’ isn’t just the name of some former community leader.

The guy lead the city through the Great Depression, World War II, earned us acclaim in the Saturday Evening Post, established what would eventually become the Fort Wayne International Airport and, oh, no big deal, but he also lead the effort to elevate an entire railroad above a half dozen busy city streets.

As we’re pretty keen on trains, we’re gonna make something out of that last bit, as it has a lot to do with everything.

So, honestly – who wouldn’t want Harry Baals?


But for real, here’s a connection we’re pretty fond of. On Calhoun Street – two blocks north of the July 11th party – affixed to the leg of the massive railroad elevation platform is a big, bronze plaque dedicated to Harry Baals.


Big, Bronze Baals.

This elevation project had been stalled for thirty years. Only in the post-war era did it finally begin. Why was it such a big deal? Well, the Nickel Plate Railroad operated over 50 trains a day through downtown on a right-of-way that had once been the Wabash & Erie Canal.

Harry in the flesh, via Wikipedia.

Harry in the flesh, via Wikipedia.

With 50+ trains a day skirting past Superior Street and over major avenues like Wells, Calhoun, and Clinton, you were more than likely to get stopped on your way to and from downtown. At that point in the city’s history, the railroad on the north side was so busy that most of Fort Wayne’s development was central and south-centrally located. There was no Pine Valley. No Glenbrook Mall. And the Memorial Coliseum was brand new, all by its lonesome in a big ol’ field. Fort Wayne teemed at the edge of the railroad line and at the banks of the three rivers nearby. Traffic was stopped almost all the time.

Imagine dealing with that for 30 years. Citizens were mad.

After three years and a couple million dollars, Baals and the railroad had the elevation finally squared away in 1955. It was a big deal. They threw a party and ran a big steam locomotive through a ceremonial ribbon.




NKP Overpass Ribbon Breaking Ceremony

Choo, choo.

In the ensuing decade the north side of the city got crazy, becoming the focal point for development for the rest of the 20th Century. Not bad.

After a decade of such expansion and success, the city decided they’d done a good thing and the plaque on Calhoun Street wasn’t enough. They wanted the actual train from the ceremony to put on display somewhere. And they got it. In 1963, they installed a 400-ton steam locomotive in Lawton Park, adorning it with this plaque.

"...a monument to a great period of development in our country..."

“…a monument to a great period of development in our country…”

Do they even make plaques like these anymore?

And here we are in 2014. What’s it all mean?

On July 11th, thousands will inundate Calhoun Street until midnight on the first day of the Three Rivers Festival. And a few hours later on July 12th, that very same steam locomotive from Lawton Park will arrive on the elevated railroad tracks on Calhoun Street, pulling a special passenger excursion train down from Michigan to the festival.

As you may know, we are pretty big fans of this train, so much so that our work to include it in riverfront development over the last few years continues to win recognition and inclusion in what will become the Fort Wayne River District. (See: Headwaters Junction.)

Just to recap:
– Mayor with intriguing name does a lot of great stuff.
– Mayor’s name becomes national joke.
– Local community group says “that’s enough, we’ll take that name back please.”
– Group names block party in honor of said mayor.
– Block party has historically drawn thousands to Calhoun Street three years in a row.
– Train placed in a city park to commemorate railroad elevation (and later famously restored in the 1970s) will bring thousands more people to Fort Wayne, arriving at the same street, on the same overpass, hours after the block party.

A Better Fort believes in creating positive, emotional experiences that connect people to our city. Author Peter Kageyama, an expert on community engagement, said it best in a quote we refer to often:


“In an economy where talent comes in all shapes, sizes and ethnicities, where the best places… have to compete for the best talent in the world, the only way to retain talent is to offer the kind of place that provides emotional attachment.”

Behind the Harry Baals joke is a story of city-building. From the literal brick-and-mortar to the work of inspiring attachment and nurturing growth, this is a name now synonymous with both.

Name another city where an incredible, block-party-rave, a giant festival parade, and a big, damn 1940s steam train all occupy the same street in the same 24 hour span?

There isn’t one. Because what other city has Baals like Fort Wayne?

Learn more about #BAALS here.

Update: #BAALS, the downtown party series, collectively brought 10,000 people downtown on July 11th and August 1st.