Last week I drove down to southern Ohio to see one of my sons and his family. I take a fairly regular route, heading southeast out of Fort Wayne on U.S. 27 to Decatur and then picking up U.S. 33 through St. Marys. Just outside Sidney, Ohio, I hop onto Interstate 75 south through Dayton, finally catching Ohio 73 to my destination.
I usually stop at the Speedway gas station at the edge of Piqua, Ohio, to take a break and get a fresh cup of coffee. So a couple of weeks ago when I received one of my historical magazines, I was quite surprised to see an article with a magnificent restored building located in —- Piqua, Ohio. The article discussed the restoration of the old Fort Piqua Hotel, and I knew instantly that the next time I headed to southern Ohio, I would be wandering into the heart of Piqua to see the hotel.
The Fort Piqua Hotel suffered from the maladies of its oldness – asbestos and lead paint contaminating its grand interior. Decaying year by year, the hotel became a victim of indifference and benign neglect. But its colorful history could not be ignored, and the City set out on a path of restoration of the Richardsonian Romanesque-style hotel.
HISTORY OF THE FORT PIQUA HOTEL
The Fort Piqua Hotel was built in 1891 – almost one hundred years after the founding of Piqua in 1793 by General Anthony Wayne. The hotel has been home to numerous businesses that have come and gone. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the hotel was a hotbed of political activity. During the 1912 presidential election, candidates William Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eugene Debs spoke from the grand balcony over the hotel entrance, drawing spectators from all over Western Ohio and Eastern Indiana.
During the Women’s Suffrage Movement, “Women for Warren Harding” held a rally in the hotel to promote the newly acquired constitutional right to vote. In 1947, in the midst of the National Civil Rights Movement, a lunch counter sit‐in demonstration resulted in an end to segregated restaurants in the City.
By the 1970s, the 85,000-square-foot building, once used as a hotel for transients and a bus depot, was all but vacant and had become the epitome for small-city urban decay. Numerous developers approached the City over the next two decades, but the scope and enormity of restoring the grand old hotel forced them to back away from the project.
In 2001, the City of Piqua stepped up to the plate, creating a nonprofit development corporation to transform the faded old hotel into a bright new home for the local library. Federal and state grants and tax credits helped move the massive effort forward, as did City funds and almost $4 million in private donations. The result? A remarkable restoration worthy of the award it recently received from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
And then on to the Grand Lake St. Marys just outside St. Marys, Ohio.
St. Marys, Ohio, is up the interstate and not too far from Piqua, so I decided I would stop and see the lake that carried the same name as the river that runs by my home.
I had never been to Grand Lake St. Marys, but the town has a unique curve in its main street with an old theater that sits along the curve. As I drove into the Grand Lake St. Marys State Park which housed the lake, I wasn’t sure which way to go. I saw some shimmering water and drove toward it, but it turned out to be simply an inlet. I was disappointed. Where was that lake?
I did not give up, though, and I am so thankful I did not. I kept driving, and as I rounded a curve, I looked out upon a huge expanse of water. The lake was enormous. The Grand Lake St. Marys was constructed in the early 1800s as a reservoir for the Miami and Erie Canals. The Lake – covering 13,500 acres in Auglaize and Mercer counties – is the largest inland lake in Ohio in terms of land area, but it is extremely shallow, with an average depth of only 5 to 7 feet.
I continued around the Lake and discovered a rocky, narrow jetty that curved like a cupped hand out into the lake. I parked my truck and began my trek out to the far point of the jetty. The wind was chilly, but the sun was bright and warm as I stepped onto the well-worn trail. Huge boulders lined the sides of the jetty, shriveled fish heads lay on the path – evidence that the fowl that languished around the jetty did not go hungry.
As I picked my way over the stones, I stopped several times to stare at the shimmering water. Somehow several of the huge rocks had come to rest at various points in the middle of the path. I paused a couple of times to sit down on the huge boulders and rest – letting the cool, tingly breeze sweep across my face. I finally made it to the end, turning to stare back at the length of jetty.
I rested one final time and then started back toward my truck. I climbed into my truck to warm up and spent a few minutes just thinking about how much beauty can be found in nature. I know I will make it a point to stop at the Grand Lake again when I travel back to southern Ohio. What a great day! I saw the Piqua preservation of the Fort Piqua Hotel, and I enjoyed the serenity of the Grand Lake St. Marys.