By the late 1880s, Columbus was coming of age.

The Midwestern capital had developed from a small frontier village into a railhead and commercial center by the end of the American Civil War in 1865. But it was still a small town of fewer than 20,000 people after all the soldiers left town.

It was a diverse city with a large number of recent German and Irish immigrants. Many of the newcomers were Roman Catholics; others were Jewish and other religious faiths. Yet the newcomers generally were welcomed by the predominantly Protestant town.

Part of the reason for this uncommon religious tolerance was economic. Columbus had seen much of its early population continue the restless migration that had brought them to town in the first place. When it was founded in 1812, the new capital city literally was on the edge of the frontier.

Then the frontier moved on.

By the 1830s, the arrival of the Ohio and Erie Canal, the National Road and the railroad brought not only immigrants but also a search for order in the new land. New laws and new manners and customs often were the spur to movement by people seeking a new place to live.

The loss of people to migration was compounded by hard times. Columbus experienced an economic depression in the 1820s and again in the 1830s and 1870s. All these challenges tended to create a population that was economically cautious, politically divided and socially conservative.

For most of the next two decades after the Civil War, Columbus often was viewed by outsiders -- especially to the east -- as a whistle-stop small town in middle America. In some ways it was.

But Columbus was changing in the 1870s and 1880s. The opening of the Hocking Valley Railway largely was financed with Columbus money, inexpensively bringing immense quantities of coal, iron and lumber to Columbus industries.

Those industries grew quickly, and the town grew with them. In 1888, the Grand Army of the Republic -- the Union Army veterans organization -- chose Columbus as the site of its 22nd annual encampment.

Some people at the time wondered, "Why Columbus?" The city needed someone to help promote itself.

That person was Deshler Welch. Born in 1855 in Buffalo, New York, Welch had made his way in the newspaper business as a writer and editor to the point where he could and did make a living as a feature writer for national magazines and the popular press. In 1888, he was given the task of looking closely at Columbus by Harper's Magazine.

The lengthy and well-illustrated article that followed described a town far different than the image one often encountered of a small village in the farm country. It was a portrait of a vibrant city:

"Columbus has three great interests: coal, iron and 'buggies.' On these three, the city has shaped its ends and fashioned its hopes. The work of mining, shopping and selling of coal gives employment to over ten thousand men. ... The quality of the iron ore found in the Hocking Valley is said to be superior to even the Pennsylvania material. There are sixty-seven firms in the business of buying the iron as it leaves the furnaces. ...

"But the third principal industry of Columbus is the manufacture of 'buggies' and carriages. ... There are eighteen manufacturers employing about 2,500 men and 300 women. ... Last year, the sale of 20,000 carriages indicates that by counting ten hours a day of work, one must have been made every nine minutes."

After describing the business interests of Columbus in further detail, Welch went on to consider the lifestyles of some of the more successful residents of the city:

"The people are cultivated by refined instincts which do not lead to extravagance or display. The richest among them live quietly in comfortable homes and in houses which are solidly built without pretentious architecture. The principal residence street is Broad Street, which does not belie its name, and is one of the most beautiful thoroughfares to be found in an American city."

As to the less fortunate, Welch notes that "Columbus does much for charity. ... The alliance of charity and religion has always been singularly strong in Columbus. The various religious denominations have for each other a praiseworthy regard."

Perhaps better informed, the Grand Army of the Republic came to Columbus in autumn 1888. More than 200,000 people -- veterans, their families and friends -- came to a town of 80,000 and stayed for 10 days. At the end of its stay, the Grand Army held a grand review. More than 90,000 uniformed men marched past the reviewing stand on Statehouse Square. It was the largest march of its kind since the end of the Civil War.

In one sense, it marked the end of an era. But it also announced the arrival of Columbus as an urban place well worth a visit.

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