Longtime residents of Columbus or anybody looking at an old picture of the north side of Broad Street at Statehouse Square will recall seeing a massive, dark multi-story building where the James A. Rhodes Office Tower is today. It was called the Board of Trade building and was the home until the 1960s of what is now the Columbus Chamber of Commerce.
Since the Chamber and its predecessors occupied the building for almost 80 years, one might conclude that the journey to a successful Chamber of Commerce in a commercial crossroads like Columbus was a simple and easy one.
It was not. And then just when civic and business leaders finally felt they had a successful organization and a building to house it, tragedy struck from an unexpected quarter. It is a story of struggle, disaster and triumphant recovery that is worth retelling.
Founded in 1812 to be the state capital, Columbus saw the development of retail, wholesale and manufacturing businesses in its early history. The village was strategically located in the center of the state and the arrival of the National Road, the Ohio Canal and a number of railroads made Columbus a good place to do business.
But for all of that, there does not seem to have been an active effort to form a Board of Trade in Columbus until 1858. On July 17 of that year a number of businessmen from Columbus and central Ohio met to form a Board of Trade to "promote integrity and good feeling and just and equitable principles in business transactions" and "to protect the rights and advance the commercial, mercantile and manufacturing interests of the city." Soon it was locally reported that the Board of Trade was "meeting daily between nine and two o'clock in the Deshler Block on the corner of High and Town Streets." Despite all of these meetings, the group seems to have disappeared after about six months.
The need for such an organization did not disappear.
On June 23, 1866, another meeting was held to organize a Board of Trade in Columbus. The objectives of the new organization were stated to be "to promote integrity and good faith, just and equitable principles of business; to discover and correct abuses; to establish and maintain conformity in commercial uses; to acquire, preserve and disseminate valuable business statistics and information ... and generally to foster, protect and advance the commercial, mercantile and manufacturing interests of the city ... " This group only lasted a short time and then it too vanished from the scene.
Another effort was made in 1872 to form a Board of Trade. This one actually lasted a few years but also was gone from Columbus by the late 1870s. Efforts to revive the organization were not successful.
It was not until April 30, 1884, that a constitution for a new Board of Trade was signed by 111 local businessmen. By June of 1884, the Board had 140 members and had opened an office in City Hall, where the Ohio Theatre is located today.
Why was this group successful where others had failed? Perhaps it was simply because Columbus was a bigger town and growing larger every day. In 1880, the population of Columbus was 51,647. By 1890, 88,150 people lived in the capital city and Columbus was becoming a major center of transportation and trade.
By 1886, the Board of Trade was ready to build a building of its own. The Board voted to spend $125,000 and acquired the site of the tavern known as the Buckeye House on East Broad Street across from the Statehouse. Known at the time as the Gardner House the site was acquired for $45,000. An article in a local paper in 1888 described what happened next.
"The architect of the building, Mr. Elah Terrell, had a patent and arched ceiling of his own invention which has attracted much attention and gives a very beautiful appearance to a room. ... The ceilings of all the basement rooms were completed some days ago and the men in the employ of Messrs. Rouzer and Co., of Dayton, who have contract for the carpenter work of the building, were ready to remove the supports when the cement had sufficiently hardened and the arch had settled. Yesterday, Mr. Terrell told the men that as far as the cement was concerned it would be safe to begin the work ..."
"A few minutes after three o'clock these men were startled by a heavy rumbling noise and the quivering of the west wall. ... A cloud of dust arising from the southeast room told that the arch had fallen." Two men died of their injuries and one other man was badly injured.
Despite this tragedy, work proceeded on the building and on July 23, 1889, its auditorium was formally dedicated with, "the rare vocalism of Miss Stella McMillin, with accompanying musical performances by the Fourteenth Regimental Band and the Orpheus Club."
This Columbus Board of Trade was determined to succeed. With us still as the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, it has done just that.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.