As it were

A little war leads to a little town

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Bexley today is a fashionable residential suburb located immediately east of downtown Columbus. It is home to a number of major institutions as well as the Governor's Mansion and the home of the President of Ohio State University.

Bexley at first glance seems to have a lot in common with other planned "automobile suburbs" in central Ohio.

But first glances can be deceiving.

Bexley, while certainly having seen its own share of planned evolution over the years, is actually the result of a merger of several previously existing communities. And what brought them together -- among other things -- was a successful little war.

American settlers moving into central Ohio in the years after the American Revolution began settling in the densely wooded forests along Alum Creek shortly after the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 opened the area to settlement. This was the Refugee Tract -- a narrow strip of land that ran east of the Scioto River from what is now Refugee Road on the south to Fifth Avenue on the north. By 1799, several families were settled near the place where Broad Street crosses Alum Creek and a crude but effective mill was in operation. Frontier Franklinton at the Forks of the Scioto and Olentangy Rivers had only been founded two years earlier in 1797. Columbus would not be founded as a new state capital until 1812.

As was the case in much of central Ohio, it took many years to clear the deep old growth forests near Alum Creek and create homesteads and farms. East Broad Street was the road to Granville. And while Granville was and is a nice town, there was not all that much traffic on the road.

In fact there was not a lot of traffic on any of the roads in central Ohio until the Ohio Canal and National Road arrived in the early 1830s. Over the next several decades, Columbus became a center of transportation and trade and by the end of the Civil War in 1865 was a major railhead as well as a state capital. Montgomery Township east of Alum Creek was still a pretty quiet place to live.

But then the pace of life began to quicken. Capital University had been founded in what is now German Village in 1830. By the 1850s, the school had relocated to a site along High Street next to the park given to the city of Columbus by Dr. Lincoln Goodale. In the years after the Civil War, the rail yards had expanded to the north and the school found itself no longer "out in the country." In 1876, Capital University moved once again to a new home along the National Road east of Columbus. Soon the neighborhood around the campus came to be called Pleasant Ridge.

Meanwhile, a number of prominent Columbus families began to move across Alum creek and build new homes as well.

In 1889, Logan Bullitt, an entrepreneur from Philadelphia and points east laid out a residential subdivision on the east side of Alum creek and called it Bullitt Park. It was quite successful and attracted a number of people with "new" and "old" money to come east and build homes in the new area.

And there the matter might have stayed as the new wealth of Columbus built homes in and around Bullitt Park and the less well-endowed built homes in Pleasant ridge near Capital University.

But then a war came along.

In February, 1898, the United States Battleship Maine exploded and sank in the harbor of Havana, Cuba. By April, 1898, America was ready to go to war.

The United States had not been to war for some time. What remained of the US Army had not been to war for many years. To fight this new enemy would require a new army of new volunteers.

On April 25, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain.

Within two days hundreds of young men were rushing to enlist in either existing or new military units at local mobilization centers. In Ohio, that place was in an area four miles east of Columbus along Broad Street near the place called Bullitt Park.

Bullitt Park had easy access to rail and road transportation and had been selected by Gov. Asa Bushnell as a good place for a temporary camp. Never one for false modesty, the governor did not object to permitting the camp to be named after him. Camp Bushnell was born.

By Tuesday April 27, 1898, the first troops were marching to the camp. Within a week more than 8,000 soldiers were in the camp. Then it rained.

But even with all of the problems of a lot of men living in very close quarters, spirits remained quite high. The army had had more than two months to prepare for the conflict so food, clothing and other supplies were never in short supply. Also, the troops moving through the camp received a lot of good news about the progress of the war including the stunning defeat of the Spanish navy at Manila Bay by Adm. George Dewey's fleet on May 1, 1898. Finally the whole camp was closed on May 20, 1898 as troops moved on to camps closer to the battle fronts of the war.

The war that created Camp Bushnell was over in 90 days. Many of the soldiers inducted at the camp never left the United States. Of those who did leave, the greatest killer was not bullets. Only 379 Americans died in combat in the war. 5,462 other men died of disease.

A monument along Broad Street records the contribution of the men who marched away from Camp Bushnell and into history. But another legacy of Camp Bushnell was in some ways as significant as the war that created it. The network of roads, electric lines and other improvements were not totally abandoned when the camp closed. In fact they were the basis for some of the later development when the village of Bexley was created in 1908.

Local historian Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek.

 

 

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