If you had been living in Columbus about a century ago or so, you might have had reason one day to stop someone at Broad and High streets and ask for directions to a place called Steelton. It was a place easy to find in a general sort of way.
Steelton was the heart of a new industrial district emerging on the south end of the capital city.Taking a local streetcar east to Parsons Avenue, one soon arrived at what until very recently been called East Public Lane and the eastern boundary of Ohio’s capital city. Pioneer physician Samuel Parsons had bought a large area east of the city limits and built a magnificent mansion for his family at the place where Town Street ended at the Public Lane. His son had made a lot of money in many enterprises and eventually had subdivided the property. The family house became the home for a newly formed Columbus School for Girls.
Taking a Parsons Avenue streetcar offered a vision of a new city coming into being. Traveling south from Livingston Avenue, one passed the neat homes and tidy streets of the eastern end of German Columbus. South of Deshler Avenue the neighborhoods began to change. They were newer and generally of more modern construction and aspect. And it was here that one would hear many different languages – Hungarian, Slovenian, Serbo-Croatian , and Polish to name just a few.
These were the new people. They had arrived from eastern and southern Europe between 1870 and 1900 as part of one of the greatest mass migrations in human history. By the time it was done, more than 15 million new people had come to America. Many if not most of them ended up in places other than Columbus. But the ones who did settle here settled on the south end.
They came here because this was the place where any number of jobs could be found. The jobs did not pay all that well but they were available to the newcomers. The jobs were often nasty, dirty and dangerous in the vast new factories located along the east-west rail lines far to the south of downtown Columbus.
It was a place that never slept. The great steel mills owned by Carnegie Steel, National Steel, American Rolling Mills and Buckeye Steel Castings never closed and the pillars of fire created by the production of molten steel illuminated the area day and night. The great factories also produced noise, smells and a layer of dirt and grit that covered much of the area and its people.
But this was home. It was a place called Steelton.
Of course steel was not the only thing made in Steelton. Federal Glass employed hundreds of people in a great factory. And one could find other factories as well making tools, machinery and industrial goods. To the south of the factory district were rendering plants, landfills and other enterprises that together produced what came to be called the “south end smell.”
But this area had not always looked like this. As little as twenty years earlier most of the area south of Deshler Avenue had been open farmland. Only a few blocks south of Schiller Park were nurseries, orchards and the Scheutzen Platz, a combination firing range and picnic grounds frequented by the residents of German Columbus.
The factory district in Columbus was to the north along the Scioto River and the creeks that emptied into it. From the time Columbus was founded in 1812, people had been doing business along the Scioto River near the downtown. Early enterprises included a mill or two and a whisky still. In time, with the arrival of the Ohio Canal and the National Road, Columbus grew and so too did the number of enterprises along the river.
Complementing the foundries, tool companies and furniture companies on the river, along “the Run” south of the courthouse at Mound Street, one could find tanneries, breweries and other businesses needing a lot of water. Similar businesses could found along the stream that later became Spring Street and in the ravine that later carried rail traffic into Columbus along its northern border at what is now Nationwide Boulevard.
But in time, these businesses were pushed out of downtown by rising land prices and an expanding downtown. Some of the businesses went north. Near the Ohio Penitentiary in what is now the Arena District, the Columbus Buggy Company and others built the largest buggy making complex in America. Along the railroad heading north and east, one could find companies making coal mining equipment, oil cloth and hand tools.
But most of the larger industries moved south near the river to that place where many railroad lines entered the city to Steelton.
Much of it is gone now. A few companies like Buckeye Steel still remain. Some of the neighborhoods like Hungarian Village remain as well. Nevertheless across all of the old south end remain memories of an earlier world a world called Steelton.
Ed Lentz writes the as it were column for ThisWeek.