OPINION

As it were: Henry Howe’s pictures provided perspective of Columbus

Ed Lentz
Guest Columnist
Henry Howe drew this picture looking south from Broad and High streets in Columbus in 1846. Drawings were more common than photographs at that time, especially for small towns.

The picture above this column looks south from Broad and High streets in Columbus. It’s 1846, and this is a memorable image drawn by a remarkable man 125 years ago. 

First, why is this drawing memorable? It is worth a closer look because not many early pictures of most places in America exist and certainly not of a small town of about 10,000 people living near what still is a moving but rather nearby frontier. Although Columbus is the state capital, images of the city are few. 

Ed Lentz

For all practical purposes, to see a picture of a typical intersection in small-town America, it had to have been drawn. Then the problem becomes finding someone to do the drawing. 

Enter Henry Howe. 

In a preface to the book in which the picture appears, Howe explained how he came to Ohio.  

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1816, Howe was the son of a printer who also operated one of the best-known bookstores in America. Howe grew up with an above-average education in art and literature. As a young man, he was working in an uncle’s bank in New York when he was given a copy of John Barber’s Historical Collections of Connecticut. The book was a travelogue, as well as a trove of local history and reminiscences of people. Some of the people were prominent. Others were simply interesting. 

Howe was captivated. He contacted Barber and became his assistant, copywriter and eventually co-author.  

“Early in 1846, we, with some time previously spent in preparation, commenced our tour over Ohio, being the fourth state through which we have travelled for such an object. We thus passed more than a year, we were in 79 of its 83 (now 88) counties, took sketches of objects of interest and everywhere obtained information by conversation with early settlers and men of intelligence. Besides this, we have availed ourselves of all published sources of information and have received about 400 manuscript pages in communications from gentlemen in all parts of the state.  

“Our task has been a pleasant one.” 

Howe arrived in Columbus and saw a rapidly growing town, with government taking up about half of the picture and commerce the other half. The intersection of Broad and High streets was not quite yet the center of things in downtown Columbus. But it was becoming just that.  

The original center of trade and commerce in the new capital city of Columbus after it had been founded in 1812 had been at High and State streets at the southwest corner of Capitol Square. For a few blocks south on High, inns, taverns and livery stables could be found. 

When the National Road arrived in Columbus in 1831, it came into town along Main Street – then called Friend Street. The original assumption had been that it would leave town along the same street. But that would mean an immense amount of traffic would miss the business district. Therefore, the National Road came into Columbus on Main Street, turned right and moved up High Street, turned left on Broad Street and left town on a new Broad Street bridge. 

With that, the intersection of Broad and High became a very busy place. 

On the left of the picture today is Statehouse Square. The current Statehouse was under construction and couldn't be seen. In the foreground in the immediate left is the Supreme Court building. Adjacent to it is a 2-story brick structure holding state offices and called “rat row” by residents. At the end of the block is the brick Statehouse completed in 1816. It served as the Statehouse until destroyed by fire in 1852. 

Across the street from all those government buildings are a series of commercial structures. The most impressive is the 5-story Neil House Hotel.  

William Neil arrived in Columbus with his wife, Hannah, in 1818. Having not prospered as a banker in Urbana, he opened a tavern across the street from the Statehouse. Leaving the tavern in Hannah’s capable hands, Neil went into the stagecoach business. “Billy Neil, the Old Stage King,” put much of his fortune into land and into his rather grand hotel, which opened in 1839. It would be the first of three Neil House Hotels to occupy the site. 

Howe returned to Ohio in the 1880s, and his new version of Historical Collections of Ohio compared the 1846 descriptions to his new ones. It, too, was a success. 

Howe spent his last years in Columbus in a house in what is now the Short North. He closed his first book’s preface, writing, “To all who have aided us … we feel under lasting obligations.” 

As we are to him. 

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.