Today's photo is one of my favorite pictures of early Columbus. I like it because it says so much about what the city was like as it entered the 20th century.

The photo depicts a pleasant morning in 1904, looking south on High Street at its intersection with State Street. Immediately behind the photographer, to the left, is Statehouse Square -- but the photographer is not interested in public buildings. Instead, he stands in the middle of a busy street, preparing for a close encounter with an electrified streetcar.

The photographer must have moved in the nick of time, because the picture survived the encounter and shows us a view of a bustling downtown.

In its early years, Columbus was known by several nicknames. A common name given to the town was "the Capital City." Sometimes that name was shortened to "Cap City," a moniker that still can be heard from time to time.

But for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Columbus was the "Arch City" -- and the photo shows us why.

On many of the major downtown streets of Columbus, arches spanned the road at a distance of every half-block or so. Illuminated at night, the arches -- especially on a wet or icy night -- gave downtown Columbus an almost magical appearance.

The purpose of the arches was more practical.

In 1888, the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union Army veterans' organization, decided to hold its 22nd annual encampment, or convention, in Columbus. The town not only was the state capital but also a major railhead, serving more than a dozen national, state and local railroads.

The group's visit to Columbus posed a number of challenges, not the least of which was where to put the more than 250,000 people expected to arrive in a town of about 80,000 residents.

The problem was addressed by creating enormous tent cities in virtually every open space of any size near downtown.

But housing and feeding all these people were not the only problems, as major concerns arose about safety and security. Bringing all of these people together in one place would attract, it was assumed, a host of thieves, scoundrels and other persons of ill repute to the city.

To provide some lighting and thereby a deterrent to crime, a series of wooden arches was placed along High Street from Union Station -- where the Greater Columbus Convention Center is today -- south to Livingston Avenue and the German neighborhood. The arches were illuminated by gaslights; locally produced natural gas had been available in Columbus for years.

The arches proved to be both effective and popular. In the years after the Grand Army encampment and its six-hour parade of 90,000 Union Army veterans, the wooden arches were replaced with metal arches with electric lights. The arches were maintained by the Columbus Railway Power and Light Co., which owned the city's unified streetcar system as well as its private electric company.

The electrified streetcar transformed America's cities. Columbus streetcars had been around since 1863, but they were horse-drawn. Hot in the summer and cold in the winter, they did not have a great impact on a city where most people still walked to most places most of the time.

The electrified streetcar changed that. Heated in the winter and cooled by a breeze when traveling at the unheard speed of 15 mph -- at least when one was in the country -- the electrified streetcar allowed cities to grow in size and complexity.

Now people who felt the need to live close to downtown could live 3, 4 and even 5 miles from Broad and High and still make a brief journey to work.

The streetcar in our picture is taking its passengers to Northwood Avenue immediately north of the Ohio State University campus, almost 4 miles from the center of town.

People in 1904 returned downtown on a regular basis. Downtown was where the better stores, the better theaters and the better restaurants were located. The newly emerging middle class of college-educated professionals and managers of local enterprises had their offices downtown.

In our picture, we can see their offices and shops marching south from State and High streets. The buildings are all four and five stories in height. In an era before elevators in common use, there were limits on how many flights of stairs most people would walk.

On the right side of the photo, we can see awnings covering most of the sidewalk, permitting shop owners to display their wares to passersby.

The city began to remove the arches in 1914 and replace them with cluster lights. But they returned in the 1990s in the Short North and in other parts of the city, serving as a pleasant reminder of the past.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.