As it were

Century-old pic rewards close examination

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Courtesy of the Columbus Metropolitan Library
Our picture today was taken at the corner of State and High streets looking north on High Street at the height of the Streetcar Strike of 1910. A large crowd of strike sympathizers has swept into the street to stop a streetcar moving south. They seem to have succeeded.

I have always been an admirer of old pictures, and our picture today is better than most. It was taken at the height of one of the most tumultuous times in our city's history. But more than the event portrayed, the picture helps us see what Columbus was like a little more than a century ago.

The picture was given to me by a local resident when I was doing some research for a book about the city. I had originally intended to use it in the book but eventually did not. I think it should be seen.

First, we need to set the stage. In the summer of 1910, Columbus experienced one of the most violent periods in our history. Columbus had seen its share of strikes and other industrial disputes in the years after the Civil War. The 1877 railroad strike had been a violent one in virtually every major railroad town in America. Strikes by workers in a number of different trades and industries had often erupted into battles as well.

But nothing really had prepared Columbus for the great 1910 Streetcar Strike. Streetcar employees worked long hours for low pay in conditions of adverse weather -- hot and cold -- that many thought were unbearable. Organizing themselves into a union, many if not most of the workers went out on strike in the early summer of 1910. Generally supported at first by many people in Columbus, public opinion turned against the strikers as violence escalated.

Fighting broke out between strikers and the replacement employees hired to keep the cars running. Streetcar tracks and streetcars were blown up. Ultimately, the National Guard was called out to maintain order. In the end, the strike was broken by the fall of 1910 and peace returned to the city.

Our picture today was taken at the corner of State and High streets looking north on High Street at the height of the strike. A large crowd of strike sympathizers has swept into the street to stop a streetcar moving south. They seem to have succeeded.

The picture is one of high drama, but it also tells us a lot about Columbus and its people.

First, let's look at the surroundings. Marching up High Street is a series of metal arches. In 1910, Columbus was called the Arch City, and the metal arches tell us why. Originally erected for a convention in 1888, the arches initially were made of wood and lit by gas. Eventually, they were made of metal and lit by electric lights. They also carried the power to the electrified streetcars moving along the street.

The streets that people are standing in are interesting as well. They are not paved with the asphalt we have today. They are paved with bricks. Remnants of our brick streets can be found in German Village and elsewhere around the city. But in 1910, most of our streets were brick.

To the left of the picture at the corner of State and High streets is a building about to be demolished. It is the old American House Hotel, which had stood on that corner since the 1830s. Originally a stagecoach inn, it had seen the comings and goings of a lot of people. Over the years, it had fallen on hard times and was about to be replaced by a commercial building.

Another noteworthy detail about the picture is its signs. We often think our own world to be a bit too highly advertised and wish for an earlier time when there were not too many signs. That place was not Columbus 100 years ago. Marching up High Street are signs promoting Hoster's Beer, Coulter's Lunch and United Cigars -- all within one half block. And the signs lit up at night as well.

What really draws me to this picture are the people. This is a streetcar strike in the middle of a hot Midwestern summer. Yet most of the people in this picture are dressed -- by our standards -- as if they were going to a wedding, a wake or a job interview. The men are uniformly in suits, the ladies in long dresses, and everyone is wearing a hat. Much of this clothing was made of wool. These people had a different sense of casual dress styles than we do today.

But the best part of the picture to me is shown in a small inset from the lower right of the picture. Standing on the corner of State and Highs streets in the middle of a violent confrontation, two young boys are side by side and doing a little dance for the entertainment of a couple of their friends and whoever else cares to watch.

There is some interest these days in "defining" ourselves as a city. We should not forget to look at who we have been. In many cases, it also will tell us who we are.

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