Today we are looking at a picture of downtown Columbus from a different time. It is a quiet afternoon and we are looking east on State Street a few feet from its intersection with Third Street. Immediately to the right, the federal district courthouse and post office can be seen. And behind the photographer is Statehouse Square.
It is probably a Sunday. On most days, at about this time, the street would be busy with people coming and going about their business in Ohio's capital city. But this is 1906 and the world is different in downtown Columbus than it is today.
Columbus is a lot smaller. Columbus is less than one quarter the size it is today, and its population is about 125,000.
We are accustomed to not seeing too many people in downtown Columbus on a Sunday. Most of the rest of the residents of the city live elsewhere.
That is not true in 1906. Downtown is still a vibrant place where people shop, work, play and worship together. They simply do not do all these things on a Sunday afternoon. Sunday in middle America in 1906 is when people pause from the week's endeavors and the pace of life slows down.
The emptiness of the street gives us a chance to look at it a bit more closely. Today this block east on State Street from Third is occupied by street-level parking lots and small business buildings. All these have been built long after the time when this picture was made. In 1906, this section of State Street is where one might find the homes of some of the oldest families in Columbus and fine houses rented to people of property and standing, both locally and from around the state.
There was a time through much of the 19th century, when most of downtown near the Statehouse was the home of the wealthy and the powerful. In the years after the Civil War, a slow but deliberate movement to the suburbs by the more affluent began. Streetcar suburbs drew much of the newly emerging middle class to new neighborhoods 1, 2 or even 3 miles from the city center.
But a dogged and determined group of some members of the oldest and best families of Columbus resisted the move from the downtown they always had known. They stayed. And affluence stayed with them.
We can see the marks of that affluence in this picture. In a time when most of the alleys of the city were unpaved and only the best traveled streets were paved at all, State Street -- certainly not a main street of the city -- is well-paved in brick. At a time when electric power is becoming fashionable but still is considered something of a luxury by many, East State Street is lined with heavily loaded electric poles in each half block. The poles carry telephone lines, as well as electric-power lines.
Unseen in this picture are the improvements under the streets, as well. For much of the early history of the city, people placed their trash and sewage into the streets. This was not conducive to good health. In the wake of several cholera epidemics, the city began to place sewers under the streets to carry away all this detritus to the Scioto River. By 1906, the area around Statehouse Square was reasonably well drained -- at least most of the time.
What did the residents of State Street have to worry about then? In a word -- breathing. Columbus in 1906 still was a city fired by coal. Coal smoke rose in a pall above the city winter and summer. Coal dust from coal burned in homes and factories got into one's clothes, and into one's hair and into one's lungs. It was a time when diseases associated with the lungs were quite common.
For all of that, downtown Columbus was where one found the best stores, the best restaurants, the best theaters and a close circle of friends and acquaintances. All one had to do was take care when out in the air.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.