Today we will look at one of my favorite photographs of downtown Columbus. I like the image because in one view it tells us a lot about a place and the people who live there.
And people do live there.
In an era before automobiles, television and the internet, people tended to be close to where they worked. In an era before easily accessible suburbs, people tended to live and work near downtown Columbus.
It is 1877. We are at the corner of High and Rich Streets and are looking north. It is a momentous year. Reconstruction is ending in the South in the wake of the election of Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as president. Federal troops are being withdrawn from the South. They will be needed elsewhere to protect trains during the Great Railway Strike. It is a time of economic downturn and discord.
But you would not know any of those things by looking at this picture. Life in Columbus seems to be bustling, successful and open. And for the most part it was just that.
Columbus in 1877 was a city in transition. Founded in 1812 in the center of the state to be the new state capital, Columbus had grown slowly at first. Isolated at the edge of a literal “wild frontier,” Columbus was a village with a few hundred residents for much of its early history.
Then, in 1832, the National Road and the Ohio and Erie Canal arrived, and hundreds of people came to Columbus. By 1834, Columbus was a city of more than 5,000 people. Many of the newcomers were German and lived south of the city. Some were Irish and lived north of the downtown in the area where the Greater Columbus Convention Center is today. Others were African American and Asian and were located in various areas across the city.
By the end of the Civil War in 1865, Columbus was a hub serving 15 railroads and was a center of commerce and trade with more than 18,000 residents. By the time our picture was taken, Columbus had industries to its commercial mix with a population approaching 50,000 inhabitants.
A diverse city with a diverse workforce tended to lead to a bustling downtown. And that is what we see here. Horse-drawn traffic in the street is complemented by two streetcar lines with a car heading each way. The streetcars had been in Columbus since 1863. They were hot in the summer, cold in the winter and not terribly popular. But they were needed and heavily used.
At the corner, one can see a street light. It is heavily wrapped with a wooden protective frame. The light is an oil lamp. It is lit in the evening and extinguished in the morning by a lamplighter. The lamp pole is protected. It is not a question of “if” but one of “when” a horse-drawn wagon will bang into the pole. Hopefully, the protective shield will prevent breakage and a fire. Sometimes, this approach actually works.
Our view today also shows us something about the structure of change in the built environment. Columbus may have been created as a town from scratch but over time it grew in layers. Some of the earliest buildings still can be seen in the center of the picture. The 1-story wood and stone buildings mostly began as taverns but later were converted to other uses.
Next to the survivors of the first town are the newcomers. These buildings are 3 and occasionally even 4 stories tall. They house retail stores on the ground floors and offices for doctors, lawyers and other professionals on the upper floors. The third and fourth floors generally are occupied by rental apartments. In some cases, the top floor might have a ballroom or other public meeting space.
Sometimes a casual observer might wonder why the buildings were not taller. They could have been with the cast-iron framing and brick or stone construction methods of the period. But in 1877, passenger elevators were few in number because of safety and reliability problems.
People wishing to visit a doctor, dentist or architect resigned themselves to climbing a few flights of stairs. Because most people did not want to climb too many stairs, the buildings tended to be a few stories tall.
Another aspect of urban living is the almost constant exposure of urban residents and visitors to advertising messages. One might wish for a simpler day in the 1800s Columbus when there was little or no advertising. As we can see in this picture, such a wish was misplaced. Most of the buildings in this picture carry large signs proclaiming their goods and services.
The corner of Rich and High was a busy and thriving place in 1877. It is gone now. Every single building in this picture without exception has been removed and replaced – sometimes more than once – by another structure.
It has been observed that cities in their essence are cauldrons of change. This picture shows us some of that change.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.