COLUMNS

As It Were: Early streets in Columbus didn’t provide smooth passage

Ed Lentz
Guest Columnist

Today, the streets of downtown Columbus tend to be taken for granted.  

The success of asphalt paving in the past century has meant most streets are reasonably straight and clean. 

Such was not always the case. 

Ed Lentz

The story of the streets of Columbus – especially in the old city within two miles of the Statehouse – is a complicated one. And it is a story made more complicated for a variety of reasons. 

Columbus is a planned city.  

There was no town here until the Ohio General Assembly brought it into being in 1812. Elaborate plans were made for wide streets and handsome boulevards. As the town came into being with government buildings on Statehouse Square and a variety of cabins, stores and taverns nearby, the major streets slowly developed.  

But, as an early history of the city explains, it was not an easy process.  

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“The borough of Columbus began without thoroughfares of any kind other than trails through the forest. No wagon roads entered it from any direction. Its earliest paths were private lanes, crossed by gates. The first task of the original settlers was to build their cabins. Having accomplished this, they began to study public conveniences and to prepare the way for village traffic and neighborhood intercourse. Forest trees standing in the streets laid out by the state director were cut down, and a portion of their stumps were pulled out or burned. The stems were used in building or split up and corded for fuel.  

This drawing depicts Lunatic Asylum on East Broad Street at Jefferson Avenue

“Through the clearings the formed crooked footpaths were soon beaten by the busy villagers and wagon tracks, disdainful of the surveyor’s lines or corners, and were cut in the virgin soil. As marshes, tree stumps, brush heaps and other obstructions had to be avoided, the first streets of Columbus were very devious, and in wet weather very difficult.” 

They remained that way for quite some time. 

Contracts were made with a variety of individuals and companies to improve the streets over the years. Some streets were paved with gravel at depths to few inches to a foot or more. A few wet places were in some way paved by the placement of split logs from large trees to form a “corduroy road.” Other places a bit less wet were covered with what came to be called a “plank road.” 

But the problems with road maintenance continued.  

In 1852, an upset citizen wrote to a local newspaper about the condition of Broad Street: “On Tuesday last, a couple of friends from Cleveland, delegates to the Temperance Convention, wishing to visit the Lunatic Asylum (then on the grounds now known as East Park Place – from Jefferson to Hamilton avenues). I took them in my carriage and set out on the perilous undertaking of reaching that institution: and by trespassing on the gravel sidewalk of Mr. Kelley, and some others, we contrived to get within 40 or 50 rods of the Asylum gate, when we were stuck fast in the mud, and after breaking the carriage and harness in order to proceed, we were compelled to wade on foot through the mire.” 

The condition of the streets did not improve much with the passage of time, even with valiant efforts by the city’s street commissioner to remedy problems as they arose. 

In March 1866, in the wake of the American Civil War, a local newspaper posted a bulletin: “Latest 4 a.m. – Communication across High Street reestablished. The street is frozen and there is now good skating the whole length of it.”  

An early account reported that “a particularly bad section of the High Street roadway from Spring Street north to the street railway stables (near the convention center) was at this time called ‘The Rip Raps.’ ”  

In 1867, a local newspaper commented that “The condition of High Street is a disgrace to our city. The street looks more like a canal than a roadway in the capital of Ohio.” 

Under rather intense pressure, local officials decided to try something rather innovative and paid more than $80,000 – an immense sum at the time – to repave High Street from Naghten Street (Nationwide Boulevard) to a spot 125 feet south of Friend Street (Main Street) with the Nicolson Wood Block system (sometimes spelled Nicholson), which pounded wooden blocks in rows into a prepared roadbed. Critics complained strongly that the wooden road would not last. 

They were right. The wooden road fell apart within three years.  

Over the several years, Columbus tried various other paving materials. Bricks especially made for road use worked well and eventually were used through much of the downtown and its adjacent neighborhoods. Remnants of that system – often replaced and rebuilt – still can be seen in German Village. 

For the rest of the town and into our own time, the Age of Asphalt will provide a modicum of relief with smooth pavements – until a bad winter fills the road with potholes and reminds us of the problems of the pioneers. 

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