As it were

The evolution of getting around town

By ED LENTZ
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How people get from place to place in Columbus and central Ohio has changed a lot over the couple of centuries the town has been here and especially in the last generation or so.

In the early days of frontier settlement, the easiest way to travel through unbroken forest and across vast prairies was by water. The intricate network of streams and rivers in central Ohio made travel by canoe relatively easy. On the larger rivers, even larger boats could make their way.

Land travel was more difficult. A series of trails had come into being over the generations of occupation of the Ohio Country by Native Americans. Originally animal trails, these paths generally followed the high ground adjacent to the major rivers of the state and connected the Ohio River to Lake Erie and the land north and west of the Ohio River to the rest of the country.

These paths were dirt trails of varied width and were virtually impassable in bad weather. When settlers first came to central Ohio in the years after the Greenville Treaty of 1795 to found frontier Franklinton, they found the great Scioto Trail passing through the area on the west side of the Scioto. An older smaller trail ran north to south along the ridge on the "High Banks opposite Franklinton" skirting a large prehistoric mound at the corner of Mound and High Streets. That trail became High Street when Columbus was founded in 1812.

The early streets of Columbus looked very impressive on a map of the town plat. In reality, they were not all that passable. Hacked through the forest on the ridge, the streets of Columbus were dirt paths that snaked around the stumps of large trees that had been felled to make the trails. One of the first tasks of the first mayor of Columbus, Jarvis Pike, was to complete a state contract to remove the stumps from High Street. He proceeded to do just that. As payment from a state with little money, he received the right to grow corn on Statehouse Square -- as soon as he had that cleared as well. Pike apparently grew corn on the square for a number of years.

To cope with the morass that the streets often became, the residents of Columbus tried a number of approaches to improve their streets. The earliest efforts consisted of logs split in half and inset into the dirt with their flat sides up. This "corduroy road" worked well enough initially but soon the logs began to separate and buckle and the road was even more dangerous than it once was. While most roads outside city limits remained dirt roads, efforts to improve city streets continued.

In the 1850s, many towns including Columbus, experimented with the Nicholson Method. This pavement consisted of laying a bed of sand or gravel and placing side by side on that bed a series of wooden blocks about the size of large bricks. Again, this sort of pavement was attractive and worked quite well for a brief period until use and weather tore up the wooden road.

In the years after the American Civil War, the population of Columbus increased significantly and the need for better streets became apparent. Many of the side streets of downtown Columbus were graveled and various efforts were made to improve the main streets of the town. Some streets like Main Street, High Street and Broad Street which carried the National Road through the city had been heavily traveled and reasonably well maintained for a number of years.

But now new efforts were made to improve all of the major streets of Columbus. A number of experiments were tried. In the end -- partly because of the abundance of nearby clay -- Columbus elected to pave most of its downtown streets with tough, hard paving bricks. Remnants of some of these brick streets can still be found today in German Village and some of the other older parts of the downtown.

Brick streets and gravel roads gave way to asphalt paving with the rise of the automobile in the 20th century. By 1916, a Good Roads Movement had begun the process which would eventually macadamize most of America and lead to the establishment of state and federally funded highways.

By the end of World War II, most of the heavily urbanized parts of America were connected by reasonably good two lane highways. Then in the 1950s, the National Defense Highway System began to be constructed. The interstate highway system took more than 20 years to complete. When it was done, suburbia in its modern form had been created and the 30-minute journey to work could be made to downtown Columbus from villages more than 10 miles away.

It is difficult to say what the next great innovation in ground transportation will be. Some people favor mass transit. Others like electric cars. But it is fair to say, in one form or another, that highways will be with us for quite some time.

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


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