COLUMNS

As It Were: Columbus was home to stagecoach 'royalty' William Neil

Ed Lentz
Guest columnist

The settlement of early Ohio was not all that easy, and it certainly often was not all that comfortable.

This was especially true if one were traveling. When newly arrived settlers from the East tried to move across these trails in wagons, carts or even single horses, they often found their forward progress to be quite difficult.

Ed Lentz

A good example of these difficulties was set forth in a letter from 1831 to a friend from Isaac Appleton Jewett, who was traveling from New England to Columbus.

The new capital of the state had been established in 1812. But in 1831 – almost 20 years later – it still was not an easy place to reach.

“From Zanesville to Columbus – fifty-eight miles – we saw the wilderness in all of its gloominess, and enjoyed self-constructed roads in all of their terror. We felt as if carried back to the times of the earliest settlers. ... Our vehicle, which, in the dialect of the country was called a spanker, was intended for four persons, and on this occasion was drawn by four strong horses at the rate of two miles per hour.

“What with the happy recollections of the previous day, the fearful anticipations of the future, the wintry wind driving through an open stage, the warnings of the driver to be prepared for any and every hazard, the confessions a timid fellow traveler, of horses frightened by the howling of the wolves, of stages overturned, of bones dislocated, and lives in jeopardy, all of which he had heard and much of which he had seen; what with traveling the dreary, livelong night and arriving at Columbus just before daybreak, and there finding four of the hotels at which we applied not only full but crowded, so that admittance for repose was out of the question;

“Considering these facts, as well as the simple incidents that one of our company was ever shrinking with fear, another had stupefied his senses with strong drink, and another was so much given to profanity as to succeed every harsh movement of the spanker with a tremendous oath, and I think one may receive full pardon for uttering the ‘groans of a storyteller.’”

Actually, by the time Jewett arrived in Columbus, things were beginning to improve as far as road transportation was concerned.

It became relatively clear rather quickly to the new settlers of central Ohio in the years after the American Revolution that something would have to be done about the trails and bypaths of the area. One simply could not move one’s goods, crops or other accoutrements from place to place with any ease.

The initial answer was for a group of local people to apply for permission to build a road from one small town to another. One company wanted a road from Columbus to Worthington. Another wanted a road to Newark. And another group wanted a road to Circleville. Many of these “roads” never got built. The ones that did often charged a toll.

Even with these sorts of challenges, it was not long before enterprising entrepreneurial residents began to try to make a living hauling people and goods along the trails of Ohio.

In central Ohio, the leading figure in this effort was a man named Philip Zinn. In 1816 – four years after the founding of Columbus and incidentally the same year in which the legislature moved from Chillicothe to Columbus – Zinn began a regular coach service from Columbus to points south.

It was not all that successful. The Ohio General Assembly met only briefly, and many of its members arrived by horseback or by boat without any need for Zinn’s coaches.

In 1822, a man named William Neil arrived in Columbus and partnered with innkeeper and former Mayor Jarvis Pike in buying out Zinn and establishing their own stagecoach company in the city.

William Neil ran a successful stagecoach line based in Columbus during the mid-1800s.

Neil was something of a legend in his own time. In short order, he went through several partners, bought out and scared out several potential competitors and his company – Neil and Moore – became the major stagecoach line in the Midwest. By 1840, if one wanted to ride a stage north and west of the Ohio River, in most cases that stage was owned by Neil – the “Old Stagecoach King.”

Such being the case, why have we not heard as much about Neil as we have about Wells Fargo and the Overland Trail stagecoaches when considering people who had helped settle the West? The reason is not difficult to find: Neil saw the coming of the railroad. Beginning as early as 1825, railroads had begun in the East. It was only a matter of time.

In 1854, Neil and his partners in the Ohio Stage Co. sold their coaches to new stage operators in Iowa. Neil took his profits and invested in railroads – and in land.

In 1827, Neil bought 300 acres about 3 miles north of Columbus and west of High Street, and before his death in 1870, he had acquired more land there. Neil's land now includes the campus of Ohio State University and nearby neighborhoods.

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