The capital city of Ohio was a minor boomtown in the 1840s and 1850s. A local history written a few decades later described the remarkable growth of Columbus:
"In 1847, an epoch of general prosperity supervened, not previously equaled or since surpassed."
In hindsight, we know there were a few prosperous periods in the 1900s and 2000s, as well. The history continued:
"Excepting the episode known as the Crisis of 1857, brought on mainly by currency disorders, excessive speculation and bad banking, this prosperity continued without interruption until the outbreak of the Civil War. Of the benefits of these favorable conditions, the capital of Ohio derived its full share. In 1849, more building was demanded than workmen could be found to execute. The same was true during the earlier fifties. Houses sprang up in all parts of the city and were rented or sold as fast as they could be built."
Many of these new houses and stores were built around Statehouse Square or within a few blocks of the center of town. Most of them are gone now. Homes and rental properties gave way to commercial and industrial structures and new residential districts were built a few blocks from the center of town. Today, we call those neighborhoods names such as German Village, East Franklinton, King-Lincoln and the Short North.
Columbus in 1831 was a struggling village of 2,000 people on the edge of a moving frontier. Then the Ohio and Erie Canal reached the city, followed by the National Road.
The all-weather highway began in 1811 in Maryland. When the National Road reached Columbus, it stopped here for a while, as it had on other occasions.
The result was a significant increase in population. By 1834, Columbus was a city of 5,000 people, and it seemed to be poised to grow indefinitely at this rapid rate. New arrivals from Germany and Ireland created new neighborhoods along "Irish Broadway" to the north of town and the "Alte Sud Ende" to the south.
Then, the urban growth of central Ohio stopped. By 1840, the population of the city had increased to only 6,000 people. What happened?
The opening of the Great West happened. People continued to come to Columbus, but as the National Road pushed west, so did the people using it.
The Ohio and Erie Canal opened much of rural Ohio to transportation and trade. Rural residents used the canal to ship grain, livestock and other products to the East and the South.
The pattern of settlement and growth changed in the 1840s. Even through interruptions such as the Mexican War in 1846 and the Gold Rush of 1849, the growth of Columbus continued. Some young men went off to the Mexican War. Other young people went west looking for gold. A few even found some. But most people stayed home.
The immigration of large numbers of people from western and southern Europe increased the population of most American cities. Midwestern cities did especially well.
A later account reported that from 1840 to 1850, Columbus, Cleveland and Dayton were in, with respect to population, a "neck-and-neck race."
Columbus' population increased from 6,048 to 17,656 in that time period, with Cleveland and Dayton seeing similar numbers.
Cincinnati was then and would continue for some time to be the largest city in Ohio, with a population of more than 115,000 by 1850.
A local account claimed that the prospects of Columbus were bright:
"In 1850 illuminating gas was for the first time introduced ... A spirit of progress in street improvement was about the same time awakened. The Columbus and Xenia Railroad had just been built and various other railway lines were projected or under construction. On March 23, 1850, a new charter for the city was passed by the General Assembly; in short as the capital turned the meridian of the century, it entered, we may almost say, into a sphere of new existence."
By our standards of today, it still was a rough sphere.
Most of the streets were loosely paved or not paved at all. Sewage disposal was still in its infancy. In a world pulled by horses, much of the city was littered by what horses leave behind.
Work on a new Statehouse had proceeded slowly since 1839 and there were calls occasionally to move the capital city. Construction moved much more quickly after the old Statehouse burned in 1852. With the completion of the new building in 1861 and the growth of other state institutions, such as the Ohio Penitentiary and schools for the blind, the deaf and the developmentally disabled, the permanence of Columbus as the capital city was assured.
With that assurance came even more growth. Columbus was coming of age.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.