Tour the Historic Fort Wayne Detroit

Birds eye view of Fort Wayne, Detroit

Did you know that Detroit has a military fort stationed right on the Detroit River? I didn’t until I looked for something to do on a fall weekend. I originally went there to experience Frankenfest, but in doing so, I got to tour the historic, and some would say, haunted Fort Wayne Detroit. Many buildings are in serious disrepair, but the grounds you walk in are in great condition. Hopefully, the military buildings will be restored before they disintegrate completely. The fort is usually open every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. However, due to the past couple of years, check online for the latest events schedule and see when the tours start up again. Here is what you will see and learn on your tour of Fort Wayne.

Birds eye view of Fort Wayne, Detroit
Barracks built in 1898 during Spanish American War

Weekend Guided Tours

Guided walking tours are available for you to see around the fort every Saturday and Sunday from the first weekend in May until the last weekend in October. The tours depart from the Visitors Center at 11 a.m and 2 p.m. The tours last 2 hours and walk you through the fort; you get to see the barracks, where the military trained, where the officers lived, and other historic buildings. The guides are very knowledgeable about the history and passionate about preserving the fort. The tour costs $5.00 per person, and your space must be reserved online. Fort Wayne is at 6325 West Jefferson in Detroit.

Tour Guide at Fort Wayne Detroit

History of Fort Wayne Detroit

View of Detroit from Fort Wayne

There were three forts here in Detroit, with Fort Wayne being the last. The French built the first fort in 1701, called Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit. It was located where Hart Plaza is today. The French occupied this fort until they surrendered it to the British during the French and Indian War in 1760. The second fort was built in 1788 and was located at the intersection of Fort and Shelby streets. The British occupied the fort until 1796 when the United States took control and renamed it Fort Shelby.

After the War of 1812, Native American leaders and the members of the United States government met at Spring Wells, the future site of Fort Wayne, to sign the Treaty of Springwells in 1815. This treaty marked the end of hostilities between the government and tribes who had allied with the British during the War of 1812. The Treaty of Spring Wells was the last treaty to be signed in Michigan by the United States government. Fort Shelby fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1826.

The Treaty of Spring Wells Signed Site on Fort Wayne grounds

In the late 1830s, several small rebellions were against the Canadian colonial government. At the same time, the U.S. government realized a lack of fortifications along the northern border with Canada to repel a potential British attack. So, in 1841, Congress earmarked funds to build a chain of forts stretching from Maine to Minnesota, including Fort Wayne. The five-point star fort was slated to install the most up-to-date cannons capable of firing on enemy sailing vessels and reaching the Canadian shore.

The Flagpole at Fort Wayne, Detroit

Buildings on the Fort Wayne Grounds

Gun turrets in the brick wall surrounding Fort Wayne

In 1768, a Potawatomi Indian village occupied the Spring Wells land. Native American Indians buried their dead here in approximately 19 found burial mounds that are over 1,000 years old. The bastioned fort was built on top of one of these burial mounds. On the Fort Wayne grounds, there is still one mound preserved from the oldest Indian burial mounds in southeast Michigan.

Indian Mound in Fort Wayne

Fort Wayne covers over 96 acres, with the City of Detroit owning 83 acres of the fort. The design principle for this fort was to be designed so that you couldn’t get into it. The fort is a bastioned rectangle with walls of earthen ramparts, covering vaulted brick tunnels that contain artillery ports with a dry moat surrounding the fort (five feet of brick). Artillery emplacements were placed atop the walls, designed for 10-inch cannons mounted to fire over the parapet. You can still see these emplacements around the flag pole at the top of the walls overlooking the Detroit River and Canada.

The entrance to Fort Wayne

Walking through the entrance to the fort is along a pathway from the Visitors Center. You are walking in the dry moat toward the original wooden doors (three layers of wood going in different directions), blocking the tunnel into the fort. We were allowed to walk into a side chamber where guards would have been stationed to look out the narrow windows where the artillery would shoot out. This area was dark, had uneven floors, and was creepy, with only a glimmer of sunshine peeping through. As you head to the center of the fort, look up at the brick walls. Soldiers used to sign the bricks, and I saw one signed in 1895.

Wooden doors - entrance to the fort
Signed bricks in the tunnel of Fort Wayne

Once going through the tunnel, you enter a big bright sunny area with the original 1848 limestone barracks across the open area where soldiers used to train. Inside the barracks, there is a ground-floor kitchen and mess hall, two floors of barracks rooms, and an attic. Each of the five vertical bays of this barracks housed 100 men. You can only see one of the barracks rooms on the second floor as the upper floors are blocked off. These have been restored to Civil War appearance. The other bays contain exhibit’s on Detroit’s military history through 1890.

The original barracks in Fort Wayne

On the grounds, outside the original fort are additional barracks built-in 1898 during Spanish American War that flank the Visitors Center, which had a mess hall, lounge, handball court, gym, theater, and bowling alley. The barracks housed 200 soldiers, with officers on the first floor and bunks on the second. Unfortunately, the buildings require major restoration.

Barracks built in 1898 during Spanish American War at Fort Wayne
Gate at Fort Wayne

As you wander out of the fort through the walled gate, you can see many other buildings in a varied state of disrepair. After the Indian Mound, you can see Officers Row. Most of these buildings were constructed in 1880. These wooden Victorian officers’ homes remodeled in 1938 were where their families lived and the Post Commander.

Officers Row at Fort Wayne, Detroit

Some other buildings on the Fort were a hospital, shops, a recreation building, commissary, a Spanish-American War post guard house, garage, and stables. We could also enter the post guard house and see the jail and where the guards stayed. There are also armored tanks on-site and canons for you to see and get photographs with. The Tuskegee Airmen Museum used to be on the property, but it has moved to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

Military at Fort Wayne

Before any cannon had been installed at Fort Wayne, the United States and Britain peacefully resolved their conflict with a signed treaty, eliminating the need for a fort on the Detroit River. The newly built fort was re-commissioned as an infantry garrison, but no troops were housed there, only a single watchman for years. There were rumors that the fort was a stop on the Underground Railroad while the fort was empty. It wasn’t until the Civil War that Fort Wayne saw activity with the first Michigan soldiers, Michigan’s 1st Volunteer Infantry Regiment, reporting for duty. During the Civil War, the fort served as a mustering center for troops from Michigan and a place for veterans to recover from their wounds.

Over the years after the Civil War, Fort Wayne became functional for many different purposes depending on the timeframe, such as:

  • The fort served as a garrison post, with regiments rotating in from the western frontier for rest.
  • During the Spanish–American War, troops from the fort headed to Cuba and the Philippines.
  • An estimated 500 African-American troops were stationed here in 1918 and during World War I.
  • During World War I, Fort Wayne became instrumental in acquiring cars, trucks, and spare parts for the military.
  • During the Great Depression, the fort was opened to homeless families and housed the Civilian Conservation Corps.
  • During the Red Scare of 1921, following World War I, the fort served as a temporary detention center for accused communists awaiting trial.
  • During World War II, Fort Wayne was designated Motor Supply Depot, and additional buildings were constructed for warehousing and shipping. During this time, Fort Wayne became the largest motor supply depot in the entire world. Every single tank, truck, jeep, tire, or spare part sent to the fronts of World War II from the Detroit factories went through Fort Wayne.
  • Fort Wayne served as home to Italian prisoners of war captured during the North African Campaign.
  • In 1948, the fort and original barracks were turned over to the City of Detroit’s Historical Commission to become a military museum.
  • During the Cold War, Fort Wayne served as an entrance station for the armed services, with thousands of enlistees and draftees sworn in during the Korean War and Vietnam War.
  • Fort Wayne was again used to provide housing for displaced families after the 1967 12th Street Riot, with the last families staying at the fort until 1971.

Is Fort Wayne Haunted?

Fort Wayne is considered one of the most haunted areas in Michigan. There have been numerous paranormal activity captured throughout the years. The fort has even hosted guided ghost tours for those who want to explore the site after dark. I want to do this, but I’m waiting for the updated schedule to be posted. Some of the claims from visitors have been seeing strange apparitions, seeing and hearing doors opening and closing, hearing unexplainable footsteps, and sensing physical touches. It is believed to be haunted by the soldiers walking these hallow grounds. Although I never had anything happen around me when I was visiting during the daytime.

Future Plans for the Fort

Fort Wayne was designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1958 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. Although even with repeated attempts to raise money for restoration projects on the fort, it has been difficult, and many more buildings need immediate help. The good news is that the construction of the new Gordie Howe International Bridge near the fort has increased the desire for possible inclusion in the national park system. With Fort Wayne being designated as a National Park, it would create Michigan’s sixth national park. If you want to help this move forward, you can do your part and sign the petition to get historic Fort Wayne designated as a National Park. With the history and significance this fort has provided the United States over the years; it deserves this updated status!

Summary

Heather at Fort Wayne Detroit

Visiting a military fort that never saw a shot fired during conflicts is momentous. I don’t think there are that many forts in the United States that can say the same. Even so, Fort Wayne is definitely worth a visit, and hopefully, you will be able to experience the wonderful guided tours they offer over the summer weekends. Have you ever explored Fort Wayne before?

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Further Reading

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2 Comments

  • Teresa Otto 13June2022 at 12:18 PM Reply

    I want to hear all about a ghost tour if you do one!

    • Heather 13June2022 at 2:54 PM Reply

      When they start updating the schedule for this year, I am so going!

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