As it were

Columbus grew rapidly in the 1840s

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COURTESY OF W.A. TAYLOR, , 1908
These sketches by G.E. Thrall show the west side of High Street in 1846.
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It was a very small town. The picture we are looking at is of a place quite different from the Columbus of today.

Columbus in the mid-1840s was simply not a place most people came to most of the time. It was the capital city of a state located in what was then called "The West." The "Midwest" was not a term used by most people in those days.

But, for all of that, Columbus was a place worth watching.

Columbus is a created city. There was no city here until the Ohio General Assembly brought it into being in 1812.

The city grew slowly at first. The town was at the edge of a moving frontier, and many people were wary of living here. But then in the early 1830s, the National Road and a branch of the Ohio and Erie Canal reached Columbus.

Within a couple of years, the population doubled and the borough of Columbus became the city of Columbus with more than 5,000 residents.

With the improvement of local roads and the growth of stagecoach lines, the population continued to grow and by the mid-1840s, Columbus was home to more than 10,000 people. Many of those were newcomers not only to Columbus but to America as well.

In the early 1830s, a flood of new immigrants began to arrive in America from Western Europe. Spurred on by difficult economic conditions and political instability, large numbers of people from Ireland and Germany in particular began to leave their homes and migrate to the United States.

Many of the newcomers stayed in the east and found homes in a band of cities stretching from Boston in the north through New York and Philadelphia to Baltimore and Washington in the south.

But many, many more came west lured by the attraction of inexpensive land and an elusive idea that a new life might be made in a new land.

By 1850, Cincinnati had one of the largest populations of German-speaking people of any place on earth. Other cities in Ohio were not far behind. By 1850, the population of Columbus had leaped from 6,000 people in 1840 to almost 18,000. Most of that growth was due to the arrival of large numbers of Germans who settled on the south end of the downtown and Irish immigrants who found homes on the north side of the city.

A sleepy small Midwestern capital city had become a bustling center of transportation and trade in a little less than a decade.

We do not have many pictures of this town in transition. Photography had only been invented in the previous couple of decades and generally was still a complicated and difficult undertaking. Most images of Columbus from this period are paintings, sketches or drawings. And they are few and far between.

In the course of his preparation of his Historical Collections of Ohio, Henry Howe included a drawing from the perspective of a person standing in the intersection of Broad and High streets looking south in 1846. But it does not give a great deal of detail of what the buildings along High Street looked like. And High Street was the place to be.

The National Road came into Columbus on Main Street, turned right onto High Street and went north until it turned left and moved out of the city along West Broad Street.

It certainly would be informative to have a more detailed view of High Street in that period. To some extent, we do. In that same year of 1846, one G.E. Thrall made a series of sketches of parts of the west side of High Street from State Street to Rich Street. Their remarkable detail tells us a lot about Columbus at that time.

Most of the buildings are one- and two-story frame structures and placed quite closely together. Iron rails extend out to the street to provide a framework for canvas awnings to protect both merchandise and customers shopping outside from sun and rain. And most of the businesses have rather large signs attached to their buildings telling people what could be found within.

The artist has even drawn a few people walking along the raised wooden sidewalk in front of the stores to give us an idea of the scale of the structures.

All in all, the three sketches give us an interesting glance at a streetscape that would not be photographed for quite some time. These sketches were published in a history of the city in 1908. We do not know if G.E. Thrall made sketches of other parts of town or where they might be.

Should we find them, they would probably tell us even more about the early days of Columbus.

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

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