A 3-part series. Photos by Stephen Hilton.
The economic importance of Detroit wasn’t lost on the federal government, and throughout history, three different forts were constructed to protect the city from potential military threats: Fort Detroit, Fort Lernoult, and Fort Wayne. The last one they built, Fort Wayne, was never demolished and is opened up to visitors every weekend. Located right on the river on the west side of Detroit in a rough neighborhood called Delray, it was once a real tourist attraction that brought much-needed money into the area, but the city’s swift decline after the 1967 riots eventually killed it. I doubt there’s enough money in the current budget to buy a shoestring.
It’s pretty sad. For example, there used to be a civil war museum upstairs in the fort’s main barracks, but thanks to decades of budgets cuts, all that’s left are spooky, empty display cases and old signage, acting as a visual reminder of the impermanence of recorded history – in a few decades, it can all be lost.
Built in 1848 when Detroit was just a city of just around 9,000 people, the actual fort itself is in decent shape, thanks to its sturdy limestone and brick construction. Walking under the archways through the fort’s dim corridors, you can touch history and hear the stories of the men who served here in the echoes of your footsteps. From the narrow windows, the outside world seems distant, like a dream.
Unfortunately, most of the buildings, including the old officers’ quarters, are bolted shut and falling apart. If you peek inside, you’ll occasionally see a ladder or an old paint bucket, signs that somebody tried to save the buildings but couldn’t. The fact that they’re still even standing after is eerie in itself, like they’ve been waiting all this time for the soldiers to come back.
Of course, after everything I’ve said, you’d think this was a place fit only for, well… ghosts. However, thanks to the spirit of adaptive reuse ingrained in the DNA of all native Detroiters at birth – generally out of necessity – there’s still plenty for us animated corpses to do. Fort Wayne might be stuck in the past, but it’s not dead yet. There are soccer fields on the fort’s grounds where Hispanic kids and kids of all other nationalities meet to play their youth soccer league games, a Tuskegee Airmen National Museum, and even ghost tours on certain days. Oh, and did I mention that there’s a huge Indian burial mound next to the soccer fields, and that some kind soul even went through the trouble of putting a garbage can on it?
Yes, only in Detroit.
From the top of the burial mound, you can see the Detroit River and the city’s great landmarks – Ambassador Bridge, Michigan Central Station, and the skyscrapers downtown. It’s quite a view. Look the other way, though, and you’ll see the grimy, foreboding factories encroaching on Delray, making it unlivable. It’s hard to imagine the neighborhood lasting as long Fort Wayne.