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As it were

A century ago, Columbus was the nation's 'Arch City'

One hundred years ago, the image of Columbus was quite well defined. Of course the same could be said of many other places as well. When one said "Crescent City," New Orleans came to mind. Philadelphia was the "City of Brotherly Love." Minneapolis and St. Paul were the "Twin Cities." And when one said he was going to "Arch City," a listener knew the traveler was heading to Columbus.

And why, one might ask, was Columbus called the Arch City? The answer was readily apparent to anyone who saw a picture of Ohio's capital city. Marching through the middle of downtown was a long series of street-spanning metal arches. Impressive enough in the daytime, at night they were lighted and transformed the city -- especially right after a spring rain -- into something of a fairyland.

Passing underneath the lighted arches along High Street was a continuing flow of electrified streetcars. To the astute observer, the reason for the arches could be seen at once. They carried the power that propelled the streetcars along the streets of the city.

But that does not really explain why Columbus became a city of arches. In fact, most major cities had electrified streetcars by 1900. And most cities carried the power to operate them along overhead wires. So why did Columbus have all of these arches?

Therein lies a story worth retelling.

After the Civil War, Ohio probably had more Union Army veterans per capita than any other state in the Union. Most of these former soldiers belonged to the largest and most powerful veterans organization in America, the Grand Army of the Republic. Recognizing this fact, the GAR decided to hold its 22nd annual encampment or convention in Columbus in 1888. More than 250,000 people descended on the city of about 90,000 for 10 days in September. To put this in perspective, imagine 3-million people showing up in Columbus today with the intention of staying for a few days.

To hold all of the newcomers, huge tent cities were erected near the downtown.

To enhance the safety and security of all of these people, Columbus erected wooden arches lit by gaslights. The high point of the encampment was the review. In the largest single parade of Union soldiers since the end of the Civil War, more than 90,000 veterans marched down High Street -- under the arches.

It was a sight to see, and after the soldiers left town, the arches remained for a time as a reminder of one of the great moments in the history of Columbus.

In the next few years, the several horse-drawn streetcar companies in Columbus were consolidated into one electrified streetcar company. The streetcars were owned by the Columbus Railway, Power and Light Co. Perhaps not too surprisingly, the electric company, looking for a way to carry power to its streetcars, hearkened back to the iconic image of the arches at the Grand Army encampment.

In 1896, with the construction of a network of arches in the core of downtown, Arch City was born. As we look back at old pictures of Columbus 100 years ago, most of what we now think of as downtown seems to have been full of arches. But like many of our images of a distant time, things were not quite that simple.

The electric company built arches to carry power to its cars in areas with the highest traffic. The expense of the arch was offset by less maintenance than one might find with free standing wires. But in the areas near the downtown, those simple wires were all one saw above the street.

In those nearby neighborhoods, this "arch absence" gave rise to a terrible malaise -- the desire to have arches of one's own. The response of the electric company was straightforward. If you provide the arch, we will provide the power.

This proved to be difficult. Most neighborhoods near downtown did not have residents or businesses with all that much money, so the efforts to raise money for arches often stalled.

But throughout the downtown, the arches became the single most identifiable image of the city. It was simply who we were. Nearby neighborhoods wanted to be part of it.

Between 1907 and 1908, Short North businesses finally succeeded in raising enough money to put arches along High Street north of Union Station, where the convention center is today. And if anything sparks action in other parts of a city, it is the success of a rival neighborhood.

Within a year, the merchants along West Broad Street from High Street to the Toledo and Ohio Railroad Station began to raise money to put up arches of their own. On July 7, 1909, they had succeeded and the arches along West Broad Street were dedicated in an evening of parades, speeches and fireworks. Beginning at 7:30 p.m., a program at the American Insurance Union Temple at the corner of Front and Broad streets began with speeches by the mayor, the governor and a number of other notables. This was followed by a parade along Broad Street over the river and back. Led by a platoon of Columbus police, the parade included the Columbus Rifles Marching Band and a group of the Old Guard from the GAR who had marched under the gas-lit arches so many years before.

The evening ended with fireworks, a cold dinner and free tickets to the Colonial vaudeville theatre on West Broad Street.

As one reporter noted at the time, "It was a grand night."

The era of Arch City ended soon thereafter. As early as 1911, cluster lights on poles on city sidewalks began to be favored. By 1914, most of the arches in downtown Columbus were gone.

Ed Lentz writes a history column for ThisWeek .