As it were

1852 lithograph touches up Statehouse

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Columbus Metropolitan Library
The Columbus intersection of Broad and High streets in 1852, looking south, with some embellishments to the Statehouse at left.
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It was an interesting picture from an interesting time. In 1852, Gleason's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion published a picture of Statehouse Square in Ohio's capital city. Some of the things in the picture were quite accurate. Some were not.

First, a little background is probably in order.

Columbus, Ohio, is a created city. There was no city here until the Ohio General Assembly brought it into being in 1812. A lot of other towns in central Ohio -- Delaware, Circleville, Worthington, Newark and what is now Dublin -- to name a few, all wanted to be the state capital. In the end, the place called the "High Banks opposite Franklinton at the Forks of the Scioto known as Wolf's Ridge" won the contest and became the new capital of the state.

The key to understanding Columbus in its early years is that "It grew slowly at first." Very slowly. The whole idea of putting a town here in the first place was based around putting a lot of traffic down the Scioto River from the place where two rivers came together. It soon became clear that very few people would be able to do that due to the reluctance of the river to carry a lot of traffic.

Columbus was a town without connection to the East.

All of that changed in the 1830s with the arrival of the Ohio Canal and the National Road. The National Road had begun in 1811 as a means to link the East to what we now call the Midwest. Opposed by Easterners, the road took more than 20 years to reach Ohio. The Ohio Canal was a little simpler. Opposed by many as a waste of money, one canal was originally proposed to run from Portsmouth to Lake Erie. In one of those moments that define a state, the people of Ohio decided to build not one but two canals across their state. Columbus would be linked to the Ohio and Erie Canal by a Feeder Canal.

In the wake of the canal and the National Road, Columbus began to grow in both size and influence. In 1832, Columbus was a town of less than 2,000 people. By 1834, the arrival of the canal and National Road had lifted the population to more than 5,000 people.

It was from this point that Columbus began to see some significant growth. Large numbers of German and Irish immigrants came to Columbus and the economic and social fabric of the town changed with their arrival.

And it is at this point we see the picture printed in Gleason's magazine.

The Drawing Room Companion was not a news magazine like Time or Newsweek. Rather it was more like the Harpers or Atlantic Monthly of its day. The picture of Columbus shown in Gleason's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion is one well worth observing.

On the right of the picture is a block of stores, shops and commercial buildings. Dominating the block is a large three story building. This is the Neil House hotel.

William Neil had come to Columbus in 1818 from Kentucky after a brief career in Urbana, Ohio. Over the next several years, Neil left a modest tavern across the street from the statehouse in the hands of his capable wife Hannah and went off to work as the operator of a stagecoach line. In this he was successful as well. By the early 1840s, if you were inclined to ride in a stagecoach anywhere from Wheeling, W.Va. north and west of the Ohio River, you were probably riding in a coach owned by "Billy Neil, the Old Stagecoach King."

Much of his money was put into real estate investments in the heart of the capital city. Among them in 1839 was the first Neil House hotel. At the time it was built, it was one of the most fashionable hostelries in America. Its large public rooms hosted a variety of events and its spacious rooms -- all paneled in walnut wood from Neil's nearby farm -- now the campus of Ohio State University -- housed governors, legislators and many other people of greater or lesser fame.

The hotel operated until 1860 when it burned to the ground following a rather boisterous party celebrating the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. It would later be followed by two other Neil House hotels.

Across the street is the Statehouse.

The Statehouse looks very impressive in this picture. The reason why it looks a bit different is that the Statehouse never looked like this. At the time the magazine was published, construction of the Statehouse was not complete. Begun in 1839, it was still a work in progress in 1852. So the publishers used a drawing of what the statehouse should look like and published it. This was a mistake. The Statehouse ended up looking something like this -- but not quite.

The lesson from all of this: Old lithographs are really interesting -- if you don't assume that everything in them is accurate.

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

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