As it were

City born as, remains a meeting place

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COURTESY OF THE COLUMBUS METROPOLITAN LIBRARY
View of the railroad bridge crossing the Scioto River in 1857, with the original Ohio Penitentiary in the background. By the end of the Civil War, no less than 15 railroad lines were moving people and cargo through the city.
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By ED LENTZ
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People have been coming together and meeting one with another in central Ohio for a very long time. Columbus sits at the confluence of two major rivers -- the Scioto and the Olentangy. In the early days of settlement in central Ohio, Native Americans lived along the Scioto and built elaborate mounds on both sides of the river for the burial of their honored dead. The mounds on the west side of the Scioto were removed quite early with the expansion of frontier Franklinton.

On the east side of the river -- on the "High Banks opposite Franklinton" -- the mounds lasted a while longer. It was not until the 1830s that Columbus -- founded in 1812 -- began to think about the removal of its mounds. A gigantic mound in the south end of downtown Columbus stood at the intersection of what is now Mound and High Streets. Originally High Street edged its way around the mound. A local doctor built a two story house for himself and his family atop the mound, but by the 1830s, the mound had been removed to make way for the widening of High Street.

By that time, Columbus, the capital city of the state of Ohio, had become a meeting place in its own right. Founded in 1812, Columbus was little more than a country village for much of its early history. Nevertheless it was considered to be in a good location for future growth. The town was north of the tall hills and narrow valleys of southeastern Ohio and also was well removed from the Great Black Swamp country of northwest Ohio. It was roughly in the center of the state and therefore equally accessible to the Ohio River to the south and Lake Erie to the north. It was believed at the time Columbus was founded that it would only be a matter of time before the capital city would be close to the rest of the country -- if not the rest of the world.

Those beliefs turned out to be quite accurate.

By the early 1830s, Columbus, Ohio, came to be joined to much of the rest of America. In the early 1820s, the success of New York's Erie Canal captured the imagination of the country. Linking the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, the Erie Canal opened much of the interior of America to the great trading ports of eastern America. Blocked by the barrier of the Appalachian Mountains, Ohio had long been trading along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers with distant New Orleans. Now trade with the East seemed possible as well.

Ohio wanted a canal of its own. The original idea was to punch a canal north from Portsmouth directly to Sandusky Bay on Lake Erie. Initial surveys soon found that this rather direct route was not feasible. At that point, the whole project might simply have been set aside.

But what happened next says something about the overwhelming confidence of Ohioans in that period and their faith in the future. Instead of giving up, it was then proposed to build not one but two canal systems. Accepting the obligation of an immense debt, Ohio proceeded to do just that and constructed the Miami and Erie Canal in western Ohio and the Ohio and Erie Canal in the central and eastern part of the state.

By the early 1830s a feeder canal had linked Columbus to the main line of the Ohio and Erie Canal. At the same time, the National Road -- begun in 1811 in the East -- reached Columbus as well. Over a two-year period in the early 1830s, the Borough of Columbus doubled in size and became a city.

Over the next 20 years Columbus continued to grow and became a melting port as German and Irish immigrants joined people moving from eastern America to the newer, cheaper and more fertile farmland of the Midwest. In 1850, the first railroad arrived in Columbus. Between 1850 and the end of the American Civil War in 1865, no less than 15 railroads were moving people and cargo through the city. Columbus became a major transfer point and home to maintenance and repair shops as well as warehouses and storage depots.

Columbus continued to be in the center of things in the Twentieth Century. In 1929, Port Columbus opened and soon was serving as a stop for Transcontinental Air Transport or TAT. Arriving in Columbus by train, passengers boarded planes to continue their trip west. Over the years since 1929, Port Columbus International Airport has become a major connection of central Ohio with the rest of the world.

Just as important was the completion of the interstate highway system in the years after World War II. With two major interstates crossing in Columbus and a 55-mile Outerbelt surrounding the city, highway travel in central Ohio became quick and convenient.

For more than two hundred years, Columbus has been a crossroads in the heart of America. It continues to be one today.

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

 

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