COLUMNS

As it Were: Circa 1870 photo shows Columbus' path to rapid growth

Ed Lentz
Guest columnist
This photo shows the corner of Broad and High streets, looking north from the intersection circa 1780.

It is 1870, and the photo above is 150 years away from who we are today.

But in many ways, we can find links to our world today from the world of that time.

Let’s look a little closer.

Ed Lentz

It is 1870 – or sometime close to that date – and we are at the corner of Broad and High streets looking north. We can tell the date by looking closely at the details in the photograph.

In the middle of the street are the two parallel lines of the first streetcar line in the city. Pulled by horses, the first streetcar ran on a single track up High Street beginning in 1863.

We can date the picture a little more closely by looking at the names of the businesses painted on the sides of the buildings. Columbus Business College and the grocery store on the ground floor of its building help us date the picture, as well.

No one seems to be present in the picture. This is not unusual. Photography still was something of an art as well as a craft in the years after the Civil War. Pictures were easier to make and easier to publish than before. But it still was something more for professionals to practice than amateurs to attempt.

This photograph likely was made by a professional, of which there were several in Columbus. It was a common practice among professionals to photograph empty streets, emphasizing the buildings and eliminating the “ghosts” of people moving through the picture. 

Looking at these streets and buildings we can see a small town becoming a city. There still are individual homes around Capitol Square and the Statehouse, but along the main commercial avenues of the city, there has been a lot of new construction.

Columbus was a town of 18,000 people in 1860. By 1870, Columbus had more than 30,000 residents and was growing rapidly.

In the early history of Columbus, most of the commercial growth of the city had been in a corridor from High Street south of State Street and then east along Main Street, where the National Road entered the city. The National Road went up High Street to Broad Street, turned left and crossed the Broad Street bridge into the west.

North of Broad Street, most of High Street was residential. Gov. William Dennison lived in a nice house with his family at Chestnut and High. The family farm and summer home were on a 160-acre tract north of the city that we today call Dennison Place, next to Victorian Village.

But as we can see in this picture, North High Street near the center of town no longer was the site of small family homes.

Along the street, new 3- and 4-story buildings can be seen. Most of these buildings were offices and shops of merchants and professionals coming to the growing city. The ground floors of most of these buildings were home to retail merchants like the grocery at the corner and the restaurants nearby. Above them, on the second and third floors, were the offices of doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professionals. The top floor often was rented as apartment space.

There are exceptions to these general rules. David Deshler had come to Columbus in 1818 from Easton, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Betsy. Astonishing his neighbors, he paid $1,000 for a town lot when most lots in the new capital city could be acquired for $200 or less. He believed his lot near the northwest corner of Broad and High eventually would be worth more. He was right.

Trained as a cabinetmaker, Deshler found little market for his work. He changed occupations, opened a store and then went into banking. By the time he died in 1869, there were 13 banks in Columbus, and he owned a bit of each of them.

The center of Deshler's banking world was the 4-story Deshler Block at the northwest corner of Broad and High. The bottom floor was the bank. The rest of the building was home of the Deshlers and apartments rented to friends and associates. It was a family sort of place.

Along the right side of the picture, hitching posts can be seen as small black lines every few yards in front of buildings. And at the corner, a street light also is visible. This is an era before electrification and the oil lamps at each corner and halfway in between were lit each night by lamplighters and extinguished by them in the morning.

It is a safer and considerably quieter world – at least in pictures like this.

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