Those looking to learn about the history of Columbus would do well to consult the records of local and state governments or read the letters of the people who lived or visited the city.
Sometimes, just looking at a photograph can bring insight into the city’s past.
Today’s picture shows the southeast corner of Gay and High streets. It is 1878, and Columbus is a thriving, growing Midwestern capital city.
Emerging from the Civil War as a small town of 18,000 people, Columbus grew rapidly because of its central location and as a hub of rail, road and canal traffic. By 1870, more than 30,000 people lived in the city.
The completion of the Hocking Valley Railroad in the early 1870s led to even more rapid growth, and by the time this photo was taken, more than 50,000 people had moved in.
Columbus, like most quickly growing cities, had its share of problems. The entire country had endured an economic depression in the mid-1870s, and a national railroad strike in 1877 had led to violent confrontations in many places. But by 1878, those events were over and the future looked to be bright for local enterprise.
It was in that spirit that we see a transformation at Gay and High streets in Columbus.
Looking first at the photo, we notice no people are in it. This was a customary convention in the professional photography of the period. Exposure times were long in the day’s cameras, and people walking through the photo often appeared as blurry ghosts wafting through the image.
To avoid the difficulty of people in the picture, photos of buildings often were taken early or on Sundays, when few people were around. Such is the case here.
A closer look at the building reveals it is 4 stories tall and stands out with bold and striking features. The architectural design is called Italianate Revival and is notable for heavy decorated hoodmolds over the windows and an elaborate cornice capping the building. The building has been constructed to be the latest in fashion and utility.
This place is the new business location of R. Jones and Son, Druggists, and that name is proudly displayed on the side of the building at 50 N. High St.
An 1879 city directory notes that R. Jones and Son also are “dealers in surgical appliances.” That same directory mentions “Richard Jones, Druggist” lives at 48 N. High St. near his business.
A closer examination of the picture shows us a bit about how people lived in Columbus at this time.
High Street in front of the building carries tracks for a horse-drawn streetcar line that had been operating since 1863. The street itself seems to be muddy and rough. Several carriages can be seen in the picture. On both the Gay Street and High Street sidewalks near the corner are large, circular, flat stones that serve as a step down for people leaving a carriage.
On the corner, a lamppost holds an oil lamp that can throw a bit of light for a short distance. It is carefully lit each evening and extinguished in the morning by a lamplighter – usually a child or other person amenable to low pay for long hours of work lighting lamps on nearby streets.
These older pictures not only show us what then was proudly proclaimed to be new in town – in this case, the Jones building – but also the older city, as well.
Immediately to the right of the Jones building is a smaller, 3-story building of simple design and trim and dating back to pre-Civil War Columbus.
The Jones building is a bold step forward at 4 stories. In a time before elevators, the Jones building was testing how many flights of stairs people would walk to do their business. Apparently, their test was successful, as most new buildings from this point on were built with a few more stories.
To the left, we see a striking view of the city in the 1870s. Immediately adjacent to the Jones building is a street-level billboard carrying notices called broadsides, advertising coming events of various sorts, from local theater presentations to the arrival in town of a circus.
In a time before radio, television or social media, these billboards complemented newspapers as a way to keep informed.
Across the alley lies a small building in a style associated with early Columbus. Beyond it are the small homes and shops. It is a residential neighborhood in the midst of change.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.