Let’s play some Jeopardy-style trivia.
Here’s your clue: This site, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, has, at one time or another, hosted 14 Civil War regiments, a flea market, a Syfy Channel TV production, a philanthropic music festival, and — in a recent comic book reboot of the fictional series — the Ghostbusters themselves.
The correct response (for bragging rights, Alex): What is Historic Fort Wayne?
“It really is a weird gem of Detroit,” says John Tenney, a paranormal investigator and expert on all things weird. Tenney, a former Hour staffer who’s been investigating paranormal activity and delivering lectures on conspiracy theories for more than two decades, was part of what he claims to be the largest organized ghost hunt in the country last May, when some 600 people converged on the grounds of Fort Wayne to see what they could scare up.
But perhaps the weirdest thing about the fort? Just how little locals seem to know about it. (We’ll get back to the ghosts later.)
Not to be confused with Fort Wayne, Indiana, the war fortification of the same name was the first American-built fort in Detroit. In the wake of the War of 1812, territorial tensions between the United States and British Canada prompted the construction of a U.S. artillery post along the country’s northern border. Built in 1845, the five-point star fort was located at the point on the Detroit River closest to Canada, where its cannons would be capable of reaching the Canadian shore. (The site was also home to ancient Native American burial grounds, which were excavated in the early 1900s.)
But before a single cannon could be installed, a peaceful diplomatic resolution was reached between the two countries in 1849. The fort found a new purpose as an infantry garrison — a role it would fulfill more than a decade later during the American Civil War. From that point on, Fort Wayne served as an induction center for Michigan troops in every U.S. military conflict up to and including Vietnam. And as the primary procurement location for military vehicles and weapons manufactured in Detroit during both World Wars, Fort Wayne was the physical arsenal in “the Arsenal of Democracy.” After World War II, the City began to take over the fort parcel by parcel, today controlling 83 acres of the 96-acre site (the rest of which is operated by the Army Corps of Engineers as a boatyard).
After housing dozens of families displaced by the riots of 1967, the fort was largely closed to — and ignored by — the public, save for some Civil War reenactment groups. In 1974, Tom Berlucchi first got involved with the fort as a 14-year-old boy in one of those groups. “I fell in love,” he says. “It’s a beautiful historical site.”
Today, Berlucchi is the de facto “general” of the fort, as the chairman and co-founder of the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition. “The site was closed by the City until I walked in, in 2001,” he says. “They really didn’t have any means or ways of starting to consider reopening it to the public.” Berlucchi founded the nonprofit coalition and reintroduced living-history events at the fort, which was overgrown and largely untended when HFWC came in. At the outset, the City was apprehensive to work with a volunteer group, he says. But they allowed the group to host a reenactment event at the fort in 2002, with one rule: Put your tent down, but don’t touch anything.
“Today, I now have a license agreement to operate … the site for them, including events,” Berlucchi says. “We’ve gone from ‘don’t touch nothing,’ to having the keys to the place.” The coalition has grown tenfold in that time, to a group that includes more than 200 volunteers who committed 10,000-plus hours to the fort last year.
What’s more, Berlucchi has been instrumental in opening Fort Wayne to a variety of events, including semiannual flea markets and ghost hunts. “Ten years ago, I saw an opportunity to raise some funds for preservation and maintenance,” Berlucchi says. “We developed a tour of the site based on limited access to facilities, where people can come in and go ghost hunting. … Our first one we did was sold out, and we’ve sold out every time since.”
Led by Metro Paranormal Investigations, the haunted tours are typically held once a month from June through November. Participants convene at the fort after dusk, where they sign waivers and go through a brief informational session. They’re then taken on a guided tour of the grounds with a group of paranormal investigators, who offer historical background and anecdotes of reported unusual activity. At about 10 p.m., participants are left to explore the fort on their own until 4 a.m.
Wyandotte resident Matt Zachary has taken two of the haunted tours with his wife. “Regardless of the whole ghost experience, we wanted to go to this place that most people don’t even know exists,” he says. “It’s one of those hidden gems of Detroit that nobody really talks about.” During his second tour, Zachary says he made contact with a spirit in the fort’s barracks. “I was kind of in awe. It was really cool. There was no fear or any of that kind of stuff.”
Emily Koch, of Trenton, has also been on two ghost hunts at the fort. She, too, claims to have made contact with ghosts. “I was always really skeptical,” she says. “But sometimes you just get a feeling like, ‘Wow. This is really happening.’ ”
“I’ve been there since 1974,” Berlucchi says, “and I’ve yet to see a ghost. But people like the tour at night. It’s a good fundraiser.”
That’s the other unseen factor of the haunted tours: proceeds go toward the upkeep and maintenance of the fort, just as they did for the Oakaloosa Music Festival, held on the fort grounds in July. Mash-up DJ act Girl Talk and the recently reunited ’90s rap group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony headlined the event, drawing some 5,000 attendees.
In the search for a venue, Fort Wayne quickly jumped to the top of the list, says Oakaloosa spokesman Adrian Pittman. “What we began to realize was that the philanthropic focus of the festival … was a perfect match with the needs of the fort,” he says. “Many people who live in the city had never visited at all, or hadn’t come in a long time. … It worked out very, very well. And the venue is actually very conducive to a festival layout.” Plans for next year’s Oakaloosa are already underway.
“There’s a big void for midsize concert venues between Cleveland, Toronto, and Chicago,” Berlucchi says. “I think we found a new niche. We had 5,000-plus people, and we didn’t even use a quarter of the parking or an eighth of the field.”
Soldiers, flea markets, music, ghosts — the fort has certainly been host to a broad array of visitors and inhabitants. But one thing you won’t ever find anywhere on the property, Berlucchi says, are rats. The other Fort Wayne tenants — namely a family of red-tailed fox — make sure of that.