COLUMNS

As It Were: Central Ohio trails led to early roads

Ed Lentz
Guest columnist

As Ohio began to be settled by newcomers from the East and South in the wake of the American Revolution, it soon became apparent that the new country north of the Ohio River was rich in fertile topsoil.

It also was a hard place to enter and leave with a wagon of any size.

Ed Lentz

Early settler and historian Caleb Atwater described the world he found:

“When the state was first organized, we do not believe there was even one bridge in the state. The roads were few and it was no easy matter for a stranger to follow them. For ourselves, we preferred to follow the pocket compass or the sun, to most of the roads, in the Virginia Military Tract; and this even ten years after the organization of State Government. ... ”

By this time, in 1812, Columbus had been brought into being as a new state capital on the “High Banks opposite Franklinton at the Forks of the Scioto.”

The new town was more of a plan on paper than an actual village of a few hundred people. The streets were mud trails punctuated by the stumps of recently removed trees.

Franklinton across the river had been around for more than 15 years and was a thriving village that would prosper in the soon-to-begin War of 1812.

But Franklinton’s streets were little more than trails, as well.

But they were trails that led somewhere.

When the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas was organized in 1803, much of its early business dealt with the opening and construction of roads.

The first of them was a road leading “from the public square in Franklinton” by “the nearest and best way to Lancaster, in Fairfield County.” An early historian later noted that this road “was made to cross the Scioto at the Old Ford below the Canal Dam (near what is now the Main Street bridge) and pass though the bottom fields (then woods) to intersect what is now the Chillicothe Road south of Stewart’s Grove (Schiller Park) and continued to be a travelled road until after Columbus was laid out.”

The Old Chillicothe Road was part of an early trail variously called the Scioto Trail or the Warrior’s Path that had been used by Native Americans to travel from the Ohio River to Lake Erie.

It was a common practice for new roads to follow the path of the old trails that had preceded them. After all, the previous residents had had both time and volition to select the best ways to get from place to place, and it only made sense to use the trails they had blazed.

At least for a while.

With the passage of time and the continuing arrival of new people to the new country, there soon developed a demand for new roads to new places.

And many of these places were not along established trails. In the early years of Franklinton and Columbus, a number of petitions were submitted requesting new roads to Worthington, to Circleville, to Newark and to Springfield – to name just a few of the many roads desired by early settlers who wanted a way to get their goods to market.

But the state of Ohio and its local governments had little, if any, money for road construction.

The answer was to let petitioners for new roads build their own roadways and charge people to use them.

Over the next several years, a number of “turnpike companies” came into being. The term “turnpike” came from Merrie Olde England and related to the custom of lowering a 20-foot battle pike across a road as a stranger approached and charging that stranger a sum of money to pass. The battle pike became a long pole, but the idea was the same: Pay to pass.

Many of the turnpikes were rather wide trails permitting the transit of men and the animals they either rode or moved as a herd.

But these still very often were little more than mud trails.

The most notorious of them was the Columbus and Sandusky Turnpike. Begun in 1826, it was completed in 1834, and it had been promised to be an all-year gravel roadway. It was not that at all and charged its users a toll to travel in the mud. In 1843, the charter of the turnpike company was revoked, and in 1845, legislation was approved to make that route a public highway. Today, it is U.S. Route 23.

In the Ohio State Journal in 1843, a local note said a "gentleman just informs us that he was three hours coming from Worthington, eight miles, on the repealed mud pike of north of this and had to pay toll at the gate.”

The last toll booth in central Ohio used by the Columbus and Sandusky Turnpike was along High Street about 2 miles north of downtown Columbus. In 1845, a group of “wrathful citizens” tore down the toll booth and removed all traces of it from its site.

It would take some time to get good roads in central Ohio.

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