OPINION

As It Were: Union Station was desirable depot for growing city of Columbus

Ed Lentz
Guest columnist
Columbus' first Union Station opened in 1851 along High Street, just north of the Columbus city limits at what is now Nationwide Boulevard.

If one visits the area immediately north of downtown Columbus along High Street near the Greater Columbus Convention Center, it will become apparent by signs, markers and other notices that this place once was the site of Union Station.

In fact, freight trains still run daily under the convention center. And an interesting “cap” of buildings imitate in miniature what once was the Union Station Arcade.

Ed Lentz

Passenger trains have not visited Columbus since 1979, and the only remnant of the once imposing original arcade is the lonely arch that survived demolition and is the entrance ornament at McFerson Commons park in the Arena District.

Since Columbus has not seen passenger service or facilities to meet passenger needs for more than 40 years, some might wonder, what exactly was Union Station and why was it important?

The short answer is Union Station was a train station designed to meet the needs of the many railroads that once served Columbus, and it is important to remember because it was a transformative force in the story of the city.

It is the story of the arrival of the railroad and the noisy, dirty and occasionally deadly machines that changed America forever.

Columbus is a created city. There was no town here until the Ohio General Assembly decided on Valentine’s Day in 1812 to move the capital of Ohio.

The new capital city on the “High Banks opposite Franklinton at the Forks of the Scioto” was known as Wolf’s Ridge because packs of wolves roamed the heights of the ridge and the 40-foot hill at Mound and High streets.

The new capital city grew slowly at first, and in 1832, it had a population of only 2,000 or so. The arrival of the National Road and the Ohio and Erie Canal changed this, and soon “more than 60 people a day” were arriving on the National Road and another group was arriving by canal boat.

By 1849, Columbus was a bustling place defined by law as a city of more than 5,000 people. 

Then the railroad came to town.

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Railroads were not new to the American story. George Stephenson had begun experiments with turning a steam engine on it side and placing it to power a coach on wheels in the 1820s in America.

By the 1840s, steam engines pulling coaches on rails made of wood, wood covered with iron or completely of iron were making their way across the country.

In 1850, the Columbus and Xenia Railroad became the first to arrive in Columbus.

People in Columbus wanted to travel to the small village of Xenia in Greene County in southwestern Ohio because they could meet a train from the Little Miami Railroad and travel to Cincinnati, then one of the largest cities in America.

Columbus' second Union Station opened in 1875.

In short order, Columbus began to fill up with railroad lines. Because Columbus was centrally located and had an available local work force of Irish and German immigrants, the town soon became a center of railroad organization.

After 1850, other railroads began to arrive in Columbus and soon wanted to seek a place to make their own in the center of the town.

Out of this competition came an agreement to form a Union Depot organization to provide trading of skills and crafts, but, most importantly, to provide a place to meet.

Columbus' third Union Station opened in 1897, and its arcade was finished in 1899.

The place they chose was along High Street just north of the city limits at what is now Nationwide Boulevard, and the first Union Station opened in 1851.

Over the years, the Union Depot organization managed incoming trains and built the roundhouses and service buildings to meet their needs. Initially this was a barn-like building several stories tall, with a restaurant on the north side and a repair shop to the south.

These buildings soon became quite busy. During the Civil War, trains delivered men and supplies to the battlefields.

In the years after the war, even more people and supplies were furnished to the making of an urban America. Columbus was a town of 18,000 at the outbreak of the Civil War. By 1900, it was a city of 125,000 and was the Buggy Capital of the World.

In the interim, Columbus had built a second brick terminal, which opened in 1875. The third station opened in 1897, with its arcade opening two years later.

Railroads made a lot of this happen. Railroads also took lives, made and killed fortunes and launched the careers of several people. All that composes a series of stories, many of which took place in and around Union Station.

We should not tend to forget the places where our history was made. Union Station is one of those places.

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