COLUMNS

As It Were: Sketch draws viewers into 1840s downtown Columbus

ED LENTZ
A sketch by George Evans Thrall depicts High Street as it appeared in 1846.

Columbus in the 1840s was an interesting place.

It had taken a while for the small village in the wilderness of the Ohio Country to come of age, but it happened in a hurry that decade.

Ohio's capital city was a planned creation of the Ohio General Assembly. Since Ohio became a state in 1803, the capital had been in Chillicothe and then briefly in Zanesville before returning to Chillicothe. By 1810, pressure to move the capital closer to the center of the state became irresistible.

Rather than choose an established town, the General Assembly decided to build a new one.

Four men who called themselves "the Proprietors" had offered a forested site on the "high banks opposite Franklinton at the forks of the Scioto." They also offered land for a statehouse and a penitentiary, along with a large sum of money to construct buildings.

The General Assembly accepted the offer Feb. 14, 1812, along with the suggestion of a local legislator to call the new town "Columbus."

It took four years to clear trees, lay out streets and build a few buildings, in an effort interrupted by the War of 1812. But by 1816, the work of making a new town was well underway, and the General Assembly met for the first time in a 2-story brick statehouse on Statehouse Square.

Yet with all the fanfare, the fact remained that Columbus was a tiny village of about 700 people at the edge of what then was the western frontier of the country. With the Scioto River unnavigable for large boats, the little town would stay little for some time.

It was not until the early 1830s that Columbus, now a borough of about 2,000 residents, saw significant growth.

The arrival of the National Road and the Ohio & Erie Canal opened Columbus to transportation and trade with the rest of the country. By 1834, Columbus was a city of 5,000 people and was growing rapidly.

The 1840s saw that growth continue. In 1840, Columbus was a town of about 6,000 people. By 1850, the arrival of newcomers from the East Coast was complemented by new arrivals from Ireland, Germany and other parts of western Europe. The old downtown then was bounded by the German "Sud Ende," or South End, and by "Irish Broadway" to the north, where Nationwide Boulevard is today.

In 1850, more than 17,000 people were living and working in Columbus. It is a bit of that growing city that was captured in the sketch above.

In 1846, a local resident named George Evans Thrall decided to take pen in hand and make drawings of the buildings he saw along South High Street.

Photography had been invented in 1839, but the daguerreotype process was complicated, lengthy and hazardous to the untrained. And local sketch artists were more interested in sketching people than places.

Thrall came to Columbus, stayed a short while and, like many others, moved west with his family, seeking his fortune. After leaving Columbus, he worked for a time in rural Wisconsin and finally found the place he would call home in rural Kansas.

But before he left Columbus, he sketched what then was the commercial heart of the capital city. The National Road entered Columbus on Main Street, turned right on High Street and then left on Broad Street, leaving the city via the Broad Street bridge.

The drawing looks at the west side of High Street from Rich Street on the left to Walnut Alley on the right. It is only half a city block, but it is a busy place to be.

The buildings are only 1 or 2 stories tall.

In an era before elevators, builders kept buildings closer to the street.

The metal frames extending to the street and across the sidewalks in front of most of the buildings often were covered with canvas awnings to provide protection from sun and showers to passersby.

By the early 1850s, some local merchants began to top the metal grids with wooden frames covered with canvas. With reinforcement, the awnings could stay up all year.

This sometimes would pose a problem when winter snow collected heavily on the awnings. More than a few people were seriously injured when snow-laden awnings collapsed on them as they left local stores.

In time, the awnings were removed and the small stores shown here were replaced by larger ones.

But for a brief moment, George Evans Thrall captured in this sketch and others what downtown Columbus was like in the 1840s.

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