Editor's note: Ed Lentz is emeritus executive director of the Columbus Landmarks Foundation.
At the northern end of the McFerson Commons park in Columbus' Arena District stands an enormous arch.
I recently was told that a newcomer to Columbus, unacquainted with any of its history, had wondered if this great arch might be a piece of the penitentiary that once stood on that site. It is not.
The great arch has been moved a couple of times in recent years but has been able to retain its basic architectural and historic integrity. And that integrity has nothing to do with prisons and penitentiaries. It is all about railroads.
Located in the middle of Ohio, Columbus was a city created by the Ohio General Assembly to be its state capital. And because Columbus was centrally located, it soon became a center of transportation and trade. The arrival of the Ohio and Erie Canal and the National Road led to a doubling of the population, and by 1834 Columbus was a city of more than 5,000 people.
With the help of German and Irish immigrants, the population continued to increase. By the start of the Civil War in 1861, Columbus was a city of more than 18,000. Part of the reason for that growth had nothing to do with whether one was German or Irish; it had everything to do with railroads and how they made and remade America.
The first railroad to arrive here was the Columbus and Xenia Railroad. One might wonder why Columbus wanted to build a railroad to the thriving village of Xenia in 1850. Xenia was the place where one might link up with another railroad and catch a ride to Cincinnati.
The Columbus and Xenia entered the city on a line just north of the city limits. The tracks crossed High Street at grade level, and it was not long before other railroads began to enter the city, as well. Columbus was in a good location for railroads to come together.
They did just that, and Columbus soon was the home or frequent destination of more than 15 local, state or nationally financed railroads.
At first, the diverse railroads unloaded their passengers at a place east of High Street. The place for relocation soon was a large barn near the intersection of High Street and what was then called North Public Lane, which now is Nationwide Boulevard. That station soon was seen to be much too small and was replaced in 1875 with a large multistory brick station.
But by the late 1880s, that station was in need of replacement, as well. More importantly, more than eight railroad tracks crossed High Street at that point. The wait for oncoming trains could be lengthy and annoying. A tunnel had been constructed to carry streetcars under the tracks, but the tunnel was dark, odoriferous and disreputable.
A more acceptable alternative was to cross over the top of the tracks. This had been accomplished briefly in 1888 when a bridge was built over the top of the tracks to carry people on foot and by streetcar from downtown and the national convention of the Grand Army of the Republic to the state fairgrounds for the Centennial of the Northwest Territory.
When a new Union Station was being planned to take the place of the outdated and overcrowded 1875 station, one of the important parts would be a massive, paved overpass. Underneath would be the several railroads serving the city that could come and go without disrupting traffic on High Street.
Designed by noted American architect Daniel Burnham, Union Station would consist of a main passenger terminal linked to an elaborate Beaux-Arts Revival arcade along the east side of the High Street overpass. The new station would serve the people of Columbus from its opening in 1897 for the next 80 years.
But in time, the age of American passenger rail began to decline. The advent of the automobile and air travel eventually led to a decline in rail-passenger travel.
Plans to redevelop the Union Station site for a proposed convention center originally included retention of at least some of the Union Station arcade. Those plans were changed with the unannounced beginning of the demolition of the entire Union Station arcade in October 1976. By the time local preservationists obtained a restraining order, all that remained of the arcade was one lonely arch.
Over the next several years, that arch was saved, reassembled and moved before it reached its current home in McFerson Commons.
The golden age of American rail is recalled in that arch, as is the importance of saving the best of the past. From the struggle to save the arch came the recognition of the need for a permanent corporation pledged to historic preservation.
Founded in 1977, the Columbus Landmarks Foundation is that organization.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.