The last week of June 1897 was a momentous one in Columbus.
A local newspaper filled an entire page with fine print and pictures to describe and illustrate what it said “marks an epoch” in the history of the city.
The arrival of the railroad almost a half-century earlier had provided a positive impetus to the growth and success of the city. Now, after almost a year of construction, Columbus’ latest and greatest Union Station had opened to the public.
It was a reflection of the fact that Columbus not only was a capital city, but it was and would continue to be a major center of transportation and trade.
Columbus had been a railroad town for some time. Founded in 1812, the town grew slowly at first and had only about 2,000 residents by 1830. The arrival of the National Road and the Ohio and Erie Canal doubled the size of the city. In 1834, the borough of Columbus became the city of Columbus.
But then, the growth of the city slowed for a time. The arrival of immigrants from Europe in general and Ireland and Germany in particular was offset by the departure of people moving west. Some sought gold in California or a new start in Oregon; others simply were looking for cheap land in “the territories.”
Columbus, like much of the Midwest, was looking for a way to move the corn, wheat and livestock it produced, as well as its manufactured goods, more quickly and cheaply to eastern markets. That way to success seemed to lie with railroads.
As early as 1825, experimental railroads had been built in the East. But the early trains were fragile and often unsafe. Essentially consisting of a steam boiler mounted on a wheeled frame, the early, small locomotives literally pulled adapted stagecoaches along a track. They did not go very fast or very far.
They could not, because the rails on which they traveled originally were made of wood. The wooden rails soon were replaced with iron rails. Iron was stronger than wood and lasted longer. But the real answer for rail traffic was the development of durable steel rails.
By the late 1840s, many of these problems had been solved and railroads began to be built across much of America. In 1850, the first railroad arrived in Columbus.
It was the Columbus and Xenia Railroad, and it linked the state capital to the seat of Greene County in southwest Ohio. In Xenia, passengers could catch the Little Miami Railroad to Cincinnati, then the largest city in the Midwest.
Coming into Columbus, riders would cross the Scioto River and pass where the Arena District is today. Traveling near the northern boundary of the city, they would arrive at a large, barn-like structure near what is now the corner of High Street and Nationwide Boulevard.
This station soon would come to be called Union Station because it served a number of other railroads that soon would arrive in Columbus. As such, it was one of the first of its kind.
The original Union Station served the city with greater or lesser effectiveness until 1874, when a new brick Union Station was constructed a bit to the north. The new station rose a few stories high and was considerably more comfortable than its predecessor. The city had doubled in size since the old station had been built and a new one was needed.
By the early 1890s, the city was approaching a population of almost 100,000 and definitely needed a new station to serve the 17 railroads entering the city. In 1897, that new station opened.
Designed by Daniel Burnham of Chicago, Union Station No. 3 reflected the taste and views of the man who had designed much of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.
The new station sat back somewhat from the street and was fronted by a massive overpass of High Street over the tracks. Along the eastern side of the overpass was an elaborate Beaux-Arts pavilion and arcade flanked by two arched towers at each end of the arcade. A flagpole on top of the tower was anchored by four carved cherubs.
The new station served the city for several decades and became a Columbus landmark.
But as rail traffic declined, the decision was made to close the station and build a convention center on the site. The destruction of the arcade in 1976, opposed by preservationists, could not be stopped until only one lonely arch remained.
That arch was saved and eventually relocated to its present home at McFerson Commons Park in the Arena District.
It is an enduring reminder of the importance of the Age of Rail to the success of Columbus.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.