COLUMNS

As It Were: Photo proves city of Columbus' change is constant

ED LENTZ
A photo from 1908 shows an aerial view of downtown Columbus, looking northwest.
Ed Lentz

Today's photo shows Columbus as it appeared more than a century ago.

It was taken in 1908 and looks northwest from what then was the south end of downtown. In the middle of the picture, looking west across Front Street, the Scioto River curves away toward what is now the Arena District. To the right stands the Ohio Penitentiary, which stood on the site of the Arena District from 1834 until it closed in 1970 and was demolished in 1997.

Based on the photo, Columbus seems to be a smoky, dark and fairly unattractive place. That impression probably would be correct.

Of course, in 1908 – high tide for American industrialization – most cities in the country looked this way.

Created to be a new capital city in 1812, the borough of Columbus grew slowly at first in the midst of frontier Ohio. By 1830, only 2,000 people lived here.

That population more than doubled with the arrival of the Ohio and Erie Canal and the National Road by 1834. But as late as the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, only 18,000 people called the capital city home.

Then, in the 1870s, the completion of the Hocking Valley Railway opened immense quantities of inexpensive coal, timber and iron to new Columbus industries.

Linked to eastern and southern markets by other railroads, Columbus became an industrial workplace. By 1900, there were four steel mills in the city, a large stockyard and dozens of companies making shoes, watches, glassware and buggies – lots of buggies.

By 1900, there were 22 buggy companies in Columbus, and the city was the "Buggy Capital of the World."

In today's photo, the black coal smoke that clouded the city is symbolized by the large smokestack rising in the middle of the image.

But if we had looked at downtown from this perspective 20 years earlier, there would have been many more smokestacks.

The rising cost of real estate combined with the need for large factories had led many industries to move away from the downtown riverfront, where factories had been for many years. The steel mills and a large glass factory moved south to the neighborhood that came to be called Steelton. The buggy factories moved west of downtown; other large industries moved north.

Downtown Columbus began to grow in height and complexity as the city increased in wealth and population. By the turn of the century, Columbus had a unified electric-streetcar system, with power carried by wires linked block by block by large illuminated metal arches. Columbus became known as the "Arch City."

The Arch City was growing up as well as out. By the 1890s, Columbus had its first skyscraper in the Wyandotte Building, equipped with safe and reliable elevators.

It would not be alone for long. In the next few years, a number of other tall buildings began to rise downtown, and older buildings were razed and replaced by new structures.

Cities are cauldrons of constant change. That change is what brings life, variety and creative growth to urban places. But it also means a lot of the old city vanishes along the way.

That is part of what we see if we look closely at the foreground of this picture.

In its early history, Columbus was a village that also was Ohio's state capital. The center of trade and commerce was along the National Road as it entered Columbus on Main Street, turned right on High Street and then left town on Broad Street.

The rest of the town was mostly residential, punctuated by shops, markets and other hostelries.

In the center foreground of the picture is a large, 5-story, relatively new building. Surrounding it are a number of small 2- and 3-story simple buildings of frame, brick and stone.

These are former residences of the early village of Columbus that survived into the early 20th century. Some served as inexpensive apartments and homes for local workers. Others were shops and warehouses for local merchants.

With the coming of economic prosperity in the early 1900s, downtown would continue to grow and expand, leading to the removal and replacement of most of the buildings in this picture.

We are looking at the last of the old city and the rise of a new urban place – all in a single picture.

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