Ohio became a state in 1803. By 1810, many members of the Ohio General Assembly were tired of the long journey to the state capital in Chillicothe. They wanted a home in central Ohio.
Many places sought to be the capital. Among the offers made by Delaware, Newark, Worthington and what is now Dublin was a proposal from four men who had called themselves the Proprietors. They offered a site on the “high banks opposite Franklinton” at the forks of the Scioto River. It was a wooded place called Wolf’s Ridge by locals unhappy with the nightly serenades by the local wolf pack.
The legislators accepted the proposal Feb. 14, 1812. The offer included two 10-acre lots for a penitentiary and a statehouse, plus $50,000 – an immense sum in those days – to construct whatever buildings were needed.
The Proprietors had claimed their site was “high and dry and salubrious in climate.”
Early residents soon discovered the site was not so dry. In fact, it was a swamp.
A later account described it: “The principal morass, with its outlying swales and ponds, embraced the present site of the Fourth Street Markethouse (now the bus station), Trinity Church and the Cathedral, crossed the line of Broad Street and extended in a northeasterly direction to Washington Avenue.”
The ground east of Fifth Street was “a quagmire, of such an unstable nature that the falling of a rail, or other similar concussion would cause it to shake for yards around.”
Despite the wetness of the ground and the illnesses it fostered, people came to the new town. By 1816, when the Ohio General Assembly met in the new, brick, 2-story Statehouse for the first time, more than 700 people lived in the borough of Columbus.
In the memories of some early residents, Columbus in those days was a rough-and-tumble boomtown. Lots sold for $200, $500 and sometimes $1,000. In any case, the Proprietors offered extended time to repay the debt and often accepted paper money in a time when any bank or business could print its own currency.
The town grew quickly, but High Street remained littered with stumps from the large trees that once grew on the ridge.
Resident William Armstrong later remembered that “in 1820, there were not more than two or three brick houses in the borough. Its improved area terminated eastwardly at Fourth Street, Town Street was yet all in timber.”
A later account recorded what sorts of shops and homes lined the streets near the Statehouse in 1820:
“The northwest corner of State and High Street ... was then occupied by Robert McCoy’s dry goods store. Going thence northward on the west side of High Street , the buildings then existing came in the following order: 1) Marsh’s bakery, 2) McCullough’s tailor shop, 3) Tommy Johnson’s bookstore, 4) The National Hotel, 5) Three successive frame buildings occupied as groggeries and known as ‘the Three Sisters,’ 6) Judge Gustavus Swan’s residence, 7) A small frame dwelling, then the residence of Mrs. Nashee, afterwards used as a school for deafmutes and in part occupying the lots on the southwest corner of Broad and High Streets.”
Joseph Sullivant, in an address to a local group in 1870, remembered that “a pawpaw thicket grew during the borough period near the present Second Presbyterian Church (near State and Third streets).”
He also recalled: “What times we had in summer, with prisoner’s base, four holed cat, hop-scotch, round the stakes and roley-poley; and in winter we gathered the corn from the outlots east of Fourth Street, between Town and Rich, and parched it on the old stove from Mary Ann Furnace!”
The new capital city offered opportunities for success in a variety of enterprises, and the prices of local real estate continued to rise.
Then the good times ended.
With the conclusion of the War of 1812 in 1816, demand for clothing, food and guns by the state and federal governments came to an end. A lot of business had been done with paper money, presumably redeemable at local banks in gold “specie” or “hard money” made from gold. In 1818, to bring some stability to its work, the Second Bank of the United States stopped redeeming paper money with gold.
The combination of collapsing markets and failing local banks led to the first great economic downturn in the history of the new nation. Today, we would call it a depression. At the time, it was called the Panic of 1819.
In Columbus, the downturn would last for seven years. The population reached 2,000 people and stayed at that number for the next decade.
Despite the “panic,” by 1831, the stumps were gone from High Street, the major swamps in the downtown were drained and the pawpaw patch was gone. The town was beginning to look like a stable sort of place.
Then the Ohio and Erie Canal and the National Road arrived, the population doubled and Columbus was a boomtown again.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.