As it were

Hannah Neil was city's 'guardian angel'

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PHOTO COURTESY COLUMBUS METROPOLITAN LIBRARY
Hannah Neil
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She is the guardian angel of Columbus.

Hannah Schwing was born in Franklin, Va., on June 3, 1794. Her father, John Gottfried Schwing, was part of a generation of Americans seeking a new life over the mountains in the years after the American Revolution. In 1800, when Hannah was 6 years old, the family moved to Louisville, Ky. Louisville in those days was a small river town probably better known for its rather disreputable saloons than for its more respectable neighborhoods where people like the Schwings were living. It was at her home in Louisville where Hannah Schwing first made her acquaintance with William Neil.

William, "Billy Neil," was not so much a person as a force of nature. Born in Virginia in 1786, William Neil came from a family of "good background" but a family possessed of few resources. At a young age, Neil was "turned loose" to seek his own way. He did just that.

In a relatively few years, Neil had learned the trade of the surveyor. He never really became much of a surveyor. He did not need to do that.

In the early 1830s, what Ohio needed most was transportation. And William Neil was pleased to provide it.

To provide a little background, it is important to remember that early Ohio had few roads. Most of the roads it did have were widened paths of animal trails and Indian trails. As Ohio was becoming a settled place, the paths were often widened and stagecoaches began to travel along them. The first stagecoach companies were quite small. They consisted of a coach or two operating on a small route -- from Columbus to Worthington or Columbus to Newark.

Someone needed to make a unified collection of these small companies into one system. That person was William Neil.

William Neil was a man who made things happen. He consolidated small stage companies into larger companies by sheer force of personality as well as a rather combative character. By 1850 if one wanted to reach a place north and west of the Ohio River, that person was riding in a coach owned by William Neil. William Neil had become "Billy Neil -- the Old Stage King."

Behind the great stagecoach king was a wife who also made things happen. And she did it in a new city in a new state.

Columbus is a created city. There was no city here until the Ohio General Assembly brought it into being in 1812. It was into this new town of new people that Hannah Neil and her husband came. While he was out connecting the state by road and later by rail, Hannah stayed at home and looked to the needs of the people in her town.

A local history described her work. "It was her custom to put away large provisions. Such as pork, hams and sausages and pack them in barrels to distribute to the poor in the winter. So sympathetic and generous was she that she was known to have given away every dress she owned except one of black silk. ... Her old horse Billy was most at home among the byways of the Columbus of that day and he was always taking the lead in turning down some alley where he spent most of his time carrying his mistress on her errands of mercy."

The Neil family first lived on the northeast corner of Gay and Front streets and later on Front Street between Broad and Gay Streets. At this time the family had acquired a house and lot across the street from the first Ohio Statehouse at State and High Streets. That rather simple structure evolved into the first Neil House hotel in 1839. Two other Neil House hotels would follow and the hotel would be a landmark of Columbus until well into the 20th Century.

When he first came to Columbus, William Neil had stayed for a time at the country home of Capt. Joseph Vance. Vance had been Franklin County Surveyor in 1812 and had assisted Joel Wright in the original platting of the capital city. When Vance died in 1824, the family put the farm up for sale and it was purchased by the Neil family. William Neil built a large house on the site which was reached by a long lane through a forest of walnut trees that came to be called Neil Avenue. The home had "wide halls, large rooms, big open fireplaces with brass fenders and was furnished with beautiful mahogany furniture." There is no known picture of the magnificent house that burned in a rather spectacular fire in 1864.

Hannah Neil was one of the early members of the Columbus Female Benevolent Society, the oldest active charity in Columbus, and was a moving force in the creation of what later came to be called the Hannah Neil Mission and Home for the Friendless. She died on March 13, 1868, of pneumonia.

"Crowds of poor people came to attend her funeral." After the death of William Neil in 1870, the Neil farm became the home of the newly created Ohio State University.

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

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