Simply put, by 1911, Columbus was a victim of its own success.

Simply put, by 1911, Columbus was a victim of its own success.

The Ohio General Assembly had selected a site overlooking the junction of the Scioto and Olentangy rivers as the place for a new capital city in 1812. And while the town had seen some growth with the arrival of canals, railroads and the National Road, Columbus was still a modest city of 18,000 when the Civil War broke out in 1861. It is probably fair to say that most people living there at the time assumed the town, even with a lot of soldiers coming and going, would never get all that much bigger.

The residents were plainly mistaken.

By the end of the Civil War, Columbus had become a railroad town and a major center of transportation and trade. Then the Hocking Valley Railroad was completed. Immense resources of coal, iron and timber in southeast Ohio became cheaply available to Columbus businesses — just as America’s industrial revolution was getting under way in earnest.

The result was an extraordinary burst of rapid economic growth.

Columbus, a town without much industry — a few foundries, tool companies and some local breweries — now found itself part of the rapid industrialization of the Midwest. A great belt of factory towns from Pittsburgh in the east to Chicago in the west became the manufacturing heartland of the country. And Columbus was part of it.

By the turn of the century, the population of Columbus had soared past the 100,000 mark and a ring of factories encircled the old pre-industrial town. On the North Side, along the rail lines, the Jeffrey Manufacturing Co. was becoming a major producer of coal-mining machines. And it was not alone. One could also find producers of tools, oilcloth and processed food products.

On the South Side, below German Village, a whole new district called Steelton was the home of four steel mills, a glassware producer and many other factories. And along the Scioto River in the heart of downtown, the original factory area’s small buildings were now part of a growing warehouse district.

The largest factories were north and west of the downtown in the area around and beyond the aged Ohio Penitentiary. The inexpensive resources of central Ohio made Columbus an almost ideal place to make a product that needed a lot of wood, coal and iron. That product was a buggy and Columbus soon was making a lot of them.

By the turn of the 20th century, there were 22 buggy companies in Columbus and the capital city was producing one of every five buggies sold anywhere. The biggest local manufacturer was the Columbus Buggy Co. Beginning as the Iron Buggy Co. in 1875, two brothers named Peters and a man named C. D. Firestone had thought their future lay in producing a metal buggy.

It didn’t.

Undaunted, the company continued to make buggies — all sorts of buggies for all sorts of people. Eventually, Columbus Buggy became quite successful by using what we today would call an “assembly line” and was producing buggies night and day in an industrial complex on the northwest side that never slept.

To make all of this happen, Columbus manufacturers brought together money, machines, natural resources and people — a lot of people.

To man the machines and make the products required an immense number of people willing to work long hours in rather dangerous surroundings. Coming from the villages and farms of central Ohio and joined by a wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe, large numbers of people came to Columbus to make a living and a new life in the new industrial city.

Because Columbus was growing so rapidly, there simply was not enough room in the existing housing. Row after row of new, multistory tenement houses sprang up to provide inexpensive lodging for the new arrivals. Hastily designed for maximum occupancy and quickly built, the new housing rapidly proved to be inadequate. Lacking adequate heat, light and plumbing, the new tenements — and, for that matter, some of the older housing — was hot in the summer, cold in the winter, drastically overcrowded and a breeding ground for a variety of diseases exacerbated by the clouds of black coal smoke constantly hovering over the city.

Clearly, something needed to be done. But in an era of small government, it was not quite clear who would act. In time, the Associated Charities, a coalition of settlement houses, service organizations and other aid groups, took the lead and produced a model code for tenement housing for the city of Columbus.

After three years of work, the model code was published in 1911. What it proposed to eliminate says a lot about the condition of the housing of working people at the time.

The code proposed “the elimination of every one of the darkened rooms in the city. One toilet for every two families in buildings now constructed, a toilet and running water in every family apartment in buildings to be constructed hereafter.

“Windows located so that they will not be closed up by the construction of a building immediately adjoining É Abolition of the narrow, iniquitous airshafts known as culture tubes for tuberculosis, and the general provision of courts 10 feet wide in tenements hereafter constructed, five feet in dwellings.

“Receptacles for ashes, garbage and other refuse. Houses and grounds must be kept clean É City given authority to vacate all inspected houses or all existing houses that are determined to be uninhabitable on inspection by the Health Department.”

The proposed code was endorsed by the Builders and Traders Exchange, the Real Estate Board and the Columbus Society of Architects.

Not all of the changes proposed would be immediately adopted and some changes would meet with vigorous challenges. But by 1911, it was clear that the continued unregulated rapid growth of the city would not continue. In the future, zoning codes and other ordinances would make it possible for people to live safely and well in the growing and ever larger capital city.

Ed Lentz writes a history column for ThisWeek.