COLUMNS

As It Were: Broad Street trees drew well-to-do to Columbus

ED LENTZ
A 1900 photo looking east down East Broad Street from Fourth Street shows the rows of trees that once lined the thoroughfare.
Ed Lentz

In a lengthy and angry letter to a local newspaper in June 1920, Columbus resident Mary Hutchinson took local leaders to task for what she saw as a clear lack of civic judgment on their part.

Citing what she considered to be another "shameful mistake" with the Statehouse grounds, she made clear her opposition to a new proposal.

"And now once more the same dangerous two-bladed shears of mistaken utilitarianism and civic indifference that cut this distinctive charm from our city, are sharpened anew on the grindstone called 'business' and poised once more for fresh destruction their objective this the wonderful, far famed Broad Street trees."

The trees Hutchinson admired had been in place along East Broad Street beginning at the corner of Broad and Third streets for more than 60 years.

When Columbus was settled as a planned city on the "high banks opposite Franklinton at the forks of the Scioto" in 1812, there was no shortage of trees. The river's banks were covered with old-growth forest, including oak, walnut, maple and hickory trees of enormous size. In many cases, the trees were 100 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter.

Sycamore trees along the river were even larger. Rotting from the inside out, the sycamores sometimes were cut with a doorway and a window or two to make an easy one-room home for a settler.

Clearing all these trees took time, but by the 1840s, most of them were gone. They had been felled and removed by a growing population that used the wood for fuel and construction.

A few large trees survived and were complemented by new trees on Statehouse Square.

The appearance of treeless streets was not lost to William Green Deshler.

Deshler was the oldest son of local financier David Deshler and heir apparent to the founder's fortune.

From the window of the family mansion at East Broad and Third streets, William Deshler looked out at a barren Broad Street and resolved to do something about it.

Doing things thoroughly and well was a hallmark of the Deshler family. David Deshler had arrived in Columbus in 1818 from Easton, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Betsy.

Paying a remarkable $1,000 for a town lot, the Deshlers settled at the northwest corner of Broad and High streets.

David Deshler was a cabinetmaker by trade, and some of his bookcases were made for the State Library. But most people living in early Columbus had neither the money nor the inclination to buy his work -- so he became a banker.

By the time he died in 1869, there were 13 banks in Columbus, and David Deshler owned a piece of most of them.

As the heir of this empire, William Deshler would go on to a successful career as a banker, civic leader and philanthropist. Many of the charities he supported still exist and provide a variety of services to the people of Columbus.

It was as a young civic leader that Deshler became an amateur arborist. As part of his coming of age, Deshler had visited Havana, Cuba, for both business and pleasure.

Impressed with the tree-lined streets of that city, he returned to Columbus with an idea.

He and a group of his friends made the city an offer: If Columbus provided the land, Deshler and his acquaintances would provide the trees to line East Broad Street all the way to Alum Creek.

By 1857, the task was accomplished, and four lines of trees marched to the east, creating a two-lane road with a line of trees on each side. Behind the avenue were one-lane access roads, then a new line of trees on each curb.

East Broad Street became a Victorian "dream street," and many prominent local residents began to build mansions along it.

It was only in the early 1900s that the utility of four lines of trees began to be questioned. The advent of the motor car changed the use of East Broad Street. More and more cars meant more and more accidents, as motorists bumped into the trees.

It was the call to remove the trees that spurred Mary Hutchinson's indignant letter to the editor:

"For the honor of Columbus, be it said public opinion generally is against such an outrage. Shall then the purblind, stultified view prevail over the appreciative and beauty-loving many?"

The many prevailed for a time, but the combination of increased traffic and Dutch elm disease took its toll. By 1931, it became clear the trees would have to go.

Over the next several years, the trees of East Broad Street were removed. In the years after World War II, some new trees appeared along the street.

But the "dream street" became just that -- the stuff of legend.

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