I have a great passion for the St. Marys River and for Thieme Drive, which was named in honor of Theodore F. Thieme, a Renaissance Man of extraordinary talents who made Fort Wayne his home. Thieme Drive is one of a triad of streets which intersects at my corner – the other two being West Berry and Nelson.
Thieme Drive is one of the few remaining river drives left in Fort Wayne that has not been destroyed or hidden behind monstrous concrete walls or earthen levees. Thieme Drive has the potential to be a beautiful drive along the river, but today it suffers from benign neglect: its edge which skims along the river side is overgrown with small brush, weeds, and invasive Ailanthus altissima which are better known as Trees-of-Heaven. Yet among the brush and unwanted Trees of Heaven, maples, elms, and other smaller trees have managed to gain a toehold.
On the side of the Drive away from the river, a few Oriental Planes with their towering presence have survived, standing guard as busy citizens rush to and from their daily destinations. They are magnificent trees, akin to Sycamores, with bark that is mottled gray and brown and markings that resemble eyes staring out at passersby. The bark flakes away from the trees in curved sheets to expose new growth underneath. The Oriental planes were planted in the early 1900s as a part of George R. Kessler’s Parks and Boulevard plan for Fort Wayne. At one time, 37 Oriental Planes lined Thieme Drive from its Main Street turnoff to its junction with Washington Boulevard, but through the years their ranks have thinned; slowly and imperceptibly, their once massive and impressive presence has faded from the landscape.
Thieme Drive is not a long stretch – its length meanders along the St. Marys River from the Main Street bridge to its junction with Washington Boulevard. It is a part of the River Greenway system although it lacks the well-defined pathways of the formal parts of the Greenway. For decades, the annual Three Rivers Festival parade made Thieme Drive its first leg. But in 2003, the 100-year flood struck, closing Thieme Drive for days. The Parade was forced to use an alternate route, which became permanent. But here at this intersection, the St. Marys does not flood extensively like it does in so many other areas. The topographical features prevent it from doing so. The downhill gradients running from east to west on West Berry and south to north on Nelson are steep with the intersection providing a “bowl” which holds the river’s waters to a certain level.
Today, Thieme Drive is in peril of falling victim to the same fate as other floodprone streets and drives. The City intends, one way or another, to erect a flood protection wall along Thieme Drive, dooming it to the same fate as St. Joe Boulevard, Camp Allen Drive, and numerous other locations which have been sacrificed in an ongoing but futile effort to stem the flooding problem.
The City’s plans are the result of an Army Corps of Engineers study called a Section 205 Study. The Study was requested by the City of Fort Wayne after the Flood of 2003 and released in February of 2005. The Army Corps of Engineers recommended four additional flood protection projects: one of those was to construct an 1100-foot concrete wall along Thieme Drive in the area of the flooding.
The wall would run from the area southwest of the Thieme Drive Overlook to just past Wayne Street. In order to accomplish this construction, the entire river bank would be denuded of all trees and other growth. The wall has to be built to certain specifications – those being the height of the 100-year flood plus two feet. The St. Marys River would forever be hidden from view – another stretch of our rivers walled away.
And for what? The Corps study acknowledged that only a few homes were affected by the flooding. In fact, only about eight homes are affected, and those, only to the extent of water in the basements. So, the City continues its plans to do “something” and I continue to oppose its plans to do “anything.”
Girdling our rivers is not the answer; it is, at best, only a stop-gap measure creating more problems by constricting the area where the waters naturally spread out when they rise. In the aftermath of the Flood of 1982, the Army Corps of Engineers undertook a massive study of the flooding situation in Fort Wayne. The Corps provided nine alternatives: some focused on localized protections while others focused on basin-wide protections. The City and the Corps opted for the localized protections undertaking a decade and a half of river widening, wall construction, and levee building and reinforcement.
But, the rivers still flood. Protecting evey single area is impossible, and each time the City removes a portion of the floodplain by constructing walls and levees, the water must go somewhere. That somewhere can be upstream or downstream. When the water is kept from its natural floodplain, its confinement increases the load and the speed of the river. So, just as a girdle only rearranges certain aspects of the body, so the walls and levees also only rearrange where the water will go.
City officials constantly talk about riverfront development, but they then make plans to wall in the very asset that they talk about improving. Thieme Drive is of historical importance. Theodore F. Thieme founded the Wayne Knitting Mills and believed in Fort Wayne as the “City Beautiful.” He created the Thieme Drive Overlook at the junction of Thieme Drive and Rockhill by removing piles of trash and rubbish to beautify the riverbank. He donated his home at Rockhill and West Berry to house an art collection for future generations.
The beauty of the river and the historicial significance of this area drew me to my home. I can walk out on my porch and, there, just across Thieme Drive, is the St. Marys River. I have the best of both worlds: a little slice of nature in front of me and the rest of Fort Wayne to my back and sides. Another concrete wall or earthen levy is only a quick fix to a long-term problem. But this wall or levy will be different; it will destroy not only the environment along the St. Marys River but also the historical nature and natural beauty of Thieme Drive.