FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — It’s been a fixture off the banks of the Saint Joseph River for generations.
Boys and girls, tweens and teens and even adults have either swam or boated to a little plat of land in the river nestled between Spy Run Avenue and the 3200 block of Oswego Drive to enjoy campfires, fishing, picnics and a make-shift lake life built by those in the surrounding community right in the heart of Fort Wayne.
Over the years someone – it’s anyone’s guess who – even built various rope swings on the land.
Now, though, a woman is suing a party boat company over a fall from a rope swing that left her with what her legal team calls permanent injuries.
And if you unfurl the onion-like layers of motions, depositions and legal jargon throughout the lawsuit, you find an ages-old question that has seemingly gone unanswered when it comes to that piece of land that has proven so popular for so many over the course of decades:
Who actually owns Stevies Island, anyway?
Stevies Island photo #theta360 – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA
HISTORY OF THE “ISLAND”
Mapping out the history of Stevies Island is no easy task.
According to online tax records, there is no listed owner of the land.
There is no parcel number or mailing address or deed holder, though the land is zoned for residential use, apparently. A call to the Allen County Assessor’s Office seemingly sparked confusion.
Nobody in the office which tracks land in the county could answer who owned this particular bit of land.
A plaque on a boulder on the Rivergreenway near the waters is dedicated to the memory of Stephen Edmund Jones, the island’s namesake. Jones, according to the plaque, “loved and cared for this island through his childhood and as a young adult.”
He died in 1977 at the age of either 23 or 24.
Reliable records of the island do not seem to exist, with one of the few deep dives of the island from local media coming from a 1980s Journal Gazette article which did not go into who owns the land.
That article, along with blogs and online commenters, however, do detail the lore behind the island.
Jones is apparently someone who adopted it as an escape from everyday life, and he and his friends in the community took care of the island as if it was their own for several years.
A man who identified himself as Matt Jones and claimed to be Stephen Jones’ brother told a local blog in 2010 that most of the children in the area knew about the island and collectively cared for it as they held bonfires and hung out there.
He called “Stevie” Jones a high-steel worker and advocate for the rivers during his life. Stephen Jones drowned in Lima, Ohio, while working at a site, his brother wrote in the blog.
Afterward, the boulder was dedicated.
But even before Stephen Jones, the island – then called “the Islands” – was used by those in the surrounding community.
A comment on the same blog talked about growing up nearby in the 1960s and that boys would swim and play “war” with Wammo Sling Shots and BB guns.
“Course when we got older, we did a lot of beer drinking down on that river and Island!” the comment said.
Dan Wire, a local river enthusiast and long-time river expert, said the island has likely existed for at least 100 years. He added that it was actually two islands at one point, and that the current island is moving due to the river’s current.
“It was two islands until the mid-1960s when Mayor Zeis was kickstarting access to the rivers,” Wire said. “The west side of the St. Joe was dredged and the spoils placed between the ‘islands’ making it one island.”
Throughout the years, many people have enjoyed the island of unknown origin.
“My father when he came back from WWII, some of his buddies got together and floated a keg of beer out there, and they had a three-piece band, and they had a party on the islands,” Wire said.
There is a rope swing hanging on the island that Wire said has been there for 30 years at least, and he also tells of a zip line that used to carry adventure seekers over the deepest spots of the river.
Local companies like Design Collaborative have even taken corporate outings to the island.
In the picture, you can see a wooden tower constructed to make rope ladder access easier.
Even more recently, what Wire guesses are kids have dug out a makeshift area to play beer pong, which he laughed about.
Still, read and search and look, but no records have been found to declare a verifiable owner.
Many have said the property is private.
But if so, someone has to own it.
On July 3, 2020, a group of 14 people rented a boat from Rum Runner Party Boats for an afternoon excursion on the rivers of Fort Wayne.
Among them was 29-year-old Alexis Baker, from Van Wert, Ohio.
At some point during the group’s cruise through the rivers, captained by someone provided by Rum Runner, a few needed to use the bathroom and insisted they could not make it back to The Deck at Hall’s, according to the lawsuit.
The captain of the boat took the crew to Stevies Island to do what they had to do, and that’s where Baker tried a rope swing and fell.
Baker claims in the lawsuit she received permanent injuries – which now keep her from walking up sets of stairs easily, running and standing on one leg – from that fall.
She filed the lawsuit initially against Rum Runner Party Boats, the City of Fort Wayne’s Housing and Neighborhood Development Services (HANDS) and a local not-profit called FWH Venture LLC.
And this is where the exact ownership of this island gets dicey.
Each entity outright denied control or ownership of Stevies Island as part of their defense, and even Hall’s and The Deck at Hall’s – which were added to the lawsuit later – denied any involvement in Stevie’s Island.
The case is continuing to wind through the legal system, and so far all defendants have been dismissed save for Rum Runner Party Boats.
Part of the boating organization’s defense is that they cautioned people not to use the rope swing when the captain briefly stopped at the island, something Baker’s legal team claims did not happen.
Wire, the river enthusiast, offered up this reason why nobody claims the island.
“I don’t want to get into the details and overwhelm you, but there are classifications that a river can have. It can be navigable, non-navigable, or non-determined,” Wire said.
The type of classification a river has determines the ownership of the land, according to Wire, but the only problem is he said the river doesn’t have any designation.
“The St. Joe River is not determined,” Wire said.
That leaves the mystery unsolved, but Wire said he is hopeful that the open lawsuit will stir Allen County Commissioners and the DNR to take action in defining ownership.
Ultimately, he doesn’t mind if people use the island, he just wants the best for the plot of land.
“I think we need to be very careful,” Wire said. “What’s going to be the consequence of this down the road? This being a very living environment, we have got to have some forethought before we move in and do things.”
WANE 15 reached out to the Allen County Assessor’s Office and did not receive an immediate reply about who owns the island.
The Fort Wayne Parks Department sent WANE 15 a statement that included the phrase, “The short answer is that Parks does not know the status of ownership of the island.”
WANE 15 has made efforts to contact the DNR about who owns the land with no success.