Columbus as a state capital literally was carved from the forest as the War of 1812 raged across America. The site of Columbus was primeval "old-growth forest," with giant hardwood trees 30 feet in diameter and 100 feet tall. It took enormous effort just to clear an original 10 acres for Statehouse Square and 10 acres for a penitentiary.
In a little less than three years, a combination of prison labor and local artisans had built a modest two-story statehouse on Statehouse Square. To complement the statehouse, a state office building and a courthouse soon were completed. Other than that, the only other public building was the first penitentiary where the Cultural Arts Center is today.
The year of 1816 was an important one in the history of the early capital city. The Ohio General Assembly met in Columbus for the first time, Columbus was incorporated as a "borough" by the General Assembly and President Monroe passed through town on a western tour. He complimented the "infant city" but did not stay the night. He and his party pressed on to the relative sophistication of frontier Chillicothe.
So one might wonder about the occupations of the roughly 700 people living in Columbus at the time.
Some were artisans working in wood, brick, plaster or paint. A few were speculators in land and were buying lots to quickly resell to newcomers to the town.
But it seems clear that many of new citizens of the new city were employed in local inns and taverns.
The first tavern in town was built in 1813. The two-story brick building was located on west side of High Street, a little south of State and High streets. Originally called the Lion and Eagle by its owner, Volney Payne, the tavern became most famous as the Globe under the management of a man named Robert Russell. Managed by Russell until 1847, the tavern was considered by many to be one of the best in the Midwest.
But it was only one of many taverns in the town. Other establishments included the Columbus Inn, built in 1815 and the preferred meeting place of the Borough Council. It was at the southwest corner of High and Town Streets. Nearby on High Street were the White Horse Tavern and the Swan Tavern. The White Horse was noted for its veranda and the Swan for the baked goods prepared by its proprietors, the Heyl family.
There were others, as well: the Black Bear, the Golden Lamb, the Golden Plough and "The Columbus Hotel, sign of the Red Lion ... one dollar per day for man and horse."
A later account described the local tavern scene in the 1820s. "The use of distilled liquors was very common, and every tavern had its licensed bar. The guest was usually invited by his host to one gratuitous dram in the evening and one in the morning; whatever additional fluid refreshments he consumed he paid for. 'Tanzy bitters' were freely imbibed as a supposed preventive of prevailing fevers. ... It was habitual with many of the most prominent citizens of the borough to enjoy their mint juleps on summer evenings, seated on the sidewalk chairs of the coffeehouses and taverns. ... If a lady of their acquaintance chanced to pass by, they rose and greeted her graciously, each with his minted julep in his hand."
"The coffeehouse of the period was a place for gossip, refreshment and gaming. Among the exhilarating drinks dispensed there, coffee was one of the least called for or thought of. The borough and early city life of the capital developed many of these establishments. By far the most important of which was that of John Young. This famous resort and gambling place was located on High Street, a few rods north of State Street."
Built in 1826, it came to be known as the Eagle Coffeehouse. One observer at the time noted, "Everyone went there except Doctor Hoge." James Hoge was the founding minister of the First Presbyterian Church.
"Most popular and famous of the coffeehouses, next to Young's, was the Tontine, situated on the south side of State Street, a few doors west of High, and known as 'The Tinpan.' ... Politically speaking, the Whig influences centered at the Eagle coffeehouse, the Democratic at the Tontine. Partisan meetings were held, and party "slates" made up at both places, but the Tontine, paraphrased as Tinpan, became particularly noted for its secret caucuses and sly partisan manipulation."
Countering these influences took a while, but by 1845 the forces of propriety began to be seen. "In 1845, the Washington Temperance House, by Mr. Alston is announced, and in 1846, a temperance restaurant in the basement of the City Bank, by W. Tolliver." The success of these establishments in relation to their alcoholic rivals was not recorded.
Taverns and saloons would continue to be integral institutions in the story of the city. But soon, the great hotels, the Neil House, the American House, the National and others would become favored places for political intrigue.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.