Our illustration for today is one of the most memorable from the early history of Columbus.
The drawing shows the view in 1846 from the intersection of Broad and High streets looking south. On the left is Statehouse Square with a domed Supreme Court building and a single-story state office building – lovingly called “Rat Row.” At the end of the street at the southwest corner of Statehouse Square is the two-story brick Statehouse.
Across the street, several small shops and stores are in the shadow of the enormous Neil House hotel. Succeeding a successful tavern, the Neil House was the most impressive hotel in a town full of taverns and inns.
Those who entered the building immediately saw a wide walnut staircase leading to the ballroom on the second floor. The floors and wall panels were made from planed and polished black-walnut logs, and ample light was provided by large chandeliers.
It was an impressive place and a tribute to the success of its owner: William Neil, “the Old Stagecoach King,” and his wife, Hannah, a founder of organized charity in the town.
We know quite a bit about Columbus in 1846. Though it was not a census year, we know that 10,016 people lived here.
The town was home to 17 churches and 30 newspapers. It was on the line of the National Road and served by a feeder canal linking it to the nearby Ohio and Erie Canal.
All of this information and more is provided to us by an itinerant traveler from New Haven, Connecticut, who liked what he saw in Columbus:
“Columbus is beautifully located on the east bank of the Scioto, about half a mile below its junction with the Olentangy.
The streets are spacious, the site level and it has many elegant private dwellings. Columbus has a few manufactories only; it does, however, (have) a heavy mercantile business being many stores of various kinds.
“The principal literary institutions in the city are the Columbus Institute, a flourishing classical institution for males, Mr. and Mrs. Schenck’s female seminary and the German Theological Lutheran Seminary, which last has been established about seventeen years ... The great state institutions located in Columbus do honor to Ohio, give great interest to the city, and present strong attractions to strangers. They are the Asylum for Lunatics, the Asylum for the Blind, the Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, and the Penitentiary, which last is the most imposing edifice in Columbus, and is situated on the east bank of the Scioto, about half a mile north of the Statehouse.”
This description and many more came from the pen of a peripatetic young man named Henry Howe.
Born in New Haven in 1816, Howe was the son of a local bookseller. Well-educated and well-off, Howe was looking for career opportunities as he came of age in the 1830s. He found his calling with a man named J.W. Barber.
Barber made his living traveling about the state collecting stories about the various towns and diverse people he met. He published the results of his travels in 1836 in a book called “Historical Collections of Connecticut.”
Howe went to work with Barber as something of a “traveler in training” and assisted in the publication of “Historical Collections of Massachusetts” and similar works about New York and New Jersey by 1844. In 1845, Howe set out on his own and produced “Historical Collections of Virginia.” All of these books were moderately successful.
In 1846, Howe was ready to work his way across Ohio, and on his trusty horse, Old Pomp, he set out. As he made his notes and sketches, he was recording not only important stories of the early days from aging pioneers but also reporting on the growth and prosperity of a new state.
He also was not above a bit of tongue-in-cheek commentary: “The first railroad begun in Ohio was in 1841, and on February 20, 1850, the first passenger train steamed into Columbus on the Columbus and Xenia. True to its immutable instincts, the legislature without delay got passes and took an excursion.”
Howe then concluded his article about Columbus: “Aside from what we have recorded, little of conspicuousness occurred except perhaps an occasional invasion of the cholera and periodic amusement epidemics among the people, which usually took the nature of a balloon ascension.”
Howe’s books were popular and were republished over the next several decades.
He came to Columbus in 1885 and decided to make it his home as he prepared to make a second journey around the state.
He completed the second tour in 1889 and published the final version of his work, “Historical Collections of Ohio,” in three volumes.
It was and continues to be one of the best accounts of the people and state of Ohio.
Howe died in 1893 and is buried in Green Lawn Cemetery.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.