Unlike other parts of the United States that have mountains, oceans or other features to attract the newcomer, Columbus and central Ohio sit in the middle of a generally flat, glaciated plain, with some occasional ravines and rivers to offer some variation.
But the dirt of that plain is what attracted people to central Ohio. The land to the immediate south and west of what is now downtown Columbus was an open prairie with grasses rising 6 feet or more when settlers arrived after the American Revolution.
The high banks at the “forks of the Scioto” were covered with an old-growth forest of oak, hickory and walnut trees. Along the river, one might find giant sycamore and willow trees, as well.
Underneath all these grasses and forests was a topsoil that was up to 5 feet deep. It was that soil that provided for the growth of vast harvests of corn and other crops by the early settlers.
But what also attracted a large number of people to central Ohio was the presence of the state capital.
There had been an energetic and occasionally exasperating contest among towns to become the capital city.
The original capital had been at Chillicothe and briefly at Zanesville. But by 1810, there was consistent pressure to locate the capital in central Ohio. The Ohio General Assembly chose the “high banks opposite Franklinton at the forks of the Scioto.” The land was described by its proprietors as being “high, dry and salubrious in climate.”
After a slow start, the town did grow. And in a place where manufacturing and commerce were complemented early by education, transportation and government, no one segment of the community dominated a diverse economy.
The sale of and investment in real estate became an important part of the economic success of Columbus.
An early history of Columbus written more than a century ago described that real-estate growth in some detail:
“The economy of the United States has had a number of ups and downs in its long history. Generally, the 19th century saw economic downturns about every 20 years in 1817, 1837, 1857, 1873 and 1893.
“Notwithstanding the various seasons of depression in the real-estate market, the increase in realty values has been on the whole steady and permanent. From 1829 to 1837, from 1848 to 1853, from 1860 to 1873 and from 1880 to 1891this increase was very marked. ...
“The Neil House (on High Street across from the Statehouse) stands in part on inlots 268, 269 and 270. In 1825, the first two of these were valued at $2,500 and $25 respectively. Inlot 269 was doubtless unimproved. ... In 1846, the three lots were valued at $26,250 and their improvements at $55,000. ... In 1891, the three lots were valued at $241,970.”
Today, the Huntington Center sits on much of this same site. It is valued by the county auditor at more than $86 million.
“In 1846, the valuation of inlot 292 at the northwest corner of Spring and High streets, on which a part of the Chittenden Hotel now stands, was $750.” That corner now is occupied by the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation. The bureau is tax exempt, but the auditor has valued the building and the land as being worth more than $91 million.
“In 1869, Henry M. Neil was offered $300 for an acre of land lying on High Street at 14th Avenue. His father (William Neil, the ‘Old Stage King’) thought it worth at that time $250. In 1888, it was sold by Mr. Neil at a price fixed before the real-estate ‘boom’ of that year for $15,000.”
Today that property is part of the 15+High Project, which will see new buildings on the entirety of the site.
More than a century ago, a local historian summarized: “Investments in realty have largely contributed to the financial strength of many wealthy families and citizens. The foundation of many of the greatest estates were laid by large and judicious investments in Columbus lands. Not all, however, have dealt with profit in Columbus lands. The same degree of care and skill necessary to success in other kinds of business is requisite to success in real-estate transactions. ... Yet it is generally conceded that, at almost at any time in the history of the city, investments in real estate, judiciously made, have been safe and profitable.”
One final example: In 1816, David Deshler bought part of the northwest corner of Broad and High streets. He paid $1,000 for the lot. People thought him foolish to pay that much when most lots could be bought for $200.
Eventually, the lot became part of the Deshler Bank block and still later the site of the Deshler Hotel. Today, the lot is the site of the One Columbus building, which has an auditor’s market value of more than $30 million.
Deshler believed that if the family held onto the corner long enough, it would be worth much more than $1,000.
He was right.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.