Columbus wasn’t always the city that we know and love. From its humble beginnings as a patch of dense forestland, to its recent rebirth as one of the nation’s major metropolitan areas; Columbus has a long, rich history. Here are 5 of the most important milestones in the history of this great city.
The early 1800s was a time of political turmoil in Ohio. Many of the most prominent leaders were constantly at odds with each other. This resulted in the state capital being moved back and forth between Zanesville and Chillicothe. In February of 1812, the state legislature finally chose to establish the state capital in the center of Ohio. The central location and access to major transportation routes (mainly rivers at the time) made Columbus the clear choice over competitors such as Franklinton, Dublin, Worthington and Delaware.
During this time, the area was just a dense forestland on the “High Banks opposite Franklinton at the Forks of the Scioto known as Wolf’s Ridge.” Columbus was designed around the fact that it would be Ohio’s political, economic and social center. There would be a lot of work to do in the coming years.
Columbus grew significantly during this time. Many public works such as the first penitentiary, church and school were built to complement the growing population. By 1815, there were seven hundred people. As a result of this growth, Columbus was established as a borough on February 10, 1816.
There were many roadblocks to the city’s initial success. The recessions and conflicting land claims following the War of 1812 had threatened the stability of the new found capital. In addition, bouts of fevers and a cholera outbreak in 1833 nearly toppled expansion efforts. However, the borough persevered and with a population of nearly 4,000, Columbus was officially chartered as a city in March of 1834.
That year, Columbus elected John Brooks as its first mayor. Thus began a period of prosperity for the growing city. In 1850, the Columbus and Xenia Railroad was built, increasing rail traffic to the area. The Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati Railroad soon followed in 1851, which was joined and serviced by Union Station. These rails, in conjunction with Columbus’ proximity to the Ohio and Erie Canal, allowed Capital City to become a hub for trade and industry. Several important governmental landmarks, such as the Ohio Statehouse, were constructed during this period– many of which still stand today.
In the 1860s, the Civil War ravaged the nation. Columbus served as a major base for the volunteer Union Army, housing over 26,000 troops and 9,000 Confederate POW’s. Camp Chase, located in what is now known as the Hilltop Neighborhood, is one of the largest Confederate cemeteries in the North. These wartime contributions further cemented Columbus as an important figure in the national landscape. As a center of learning and social activity, the city needed to provide the residents with a means for formal education.
William Neil was a Columbus businessman who purchased a sizable 300 acres of farmland to the north of Downtown Columbus. In the subsequent years, Neil would own all of the land between High Street and the Olentangy River, constrained to the north by Lane Avenue, and the south by First Avenue. On this vast property, he constructed a central road to reach his farmland — the current Neil Avenue.
At the time of Neil’s passing, he very charitably donated his land to the state. The Morrill Land-Grant Acts were a series of U.S. statutes that helped create (mainly) public land-grant colleges across the nation. At first, it was conjectured that one of the two-existing public Universities in Ohio (Miami University and Ohio University) would be recipient to the land-grant. Both fought vigorously for the honor, but at the behest of Governor Rutherford B. Hayes, it was decided to establish a new university in the state capital. Through the Morrill Land-Grant acts, the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College is erected on Neil’s land. This was a state-supported school that would eventually grow into one of the largest and most prestigious public universities in the nation — THE Ohio State University.
At the end of the 19th century, industry began to grow in Columbus. Every aspect of urban life — education, arts, healthcare, etc. — was improving. Unfortunately, Typhoid fever was a full-fledged epidemic in Columbus during this time, and affected much of the population. It was mainly contracted through contaminated water. With a thriving population, the city needed a way to provide clean water to its people.
Thus began the “Columbus Experiment.” Initiated in 1908, this was an internationally recognized environmental project that brought in engineers from all over the world. Two brothers, Clarence and Charles Hoover, developed innovative means of water treatment. That year, a water plant was constructed to apply their water softening and filtration technology. Jeremiah O’Shaughnessy was a chief proponent of this project and is the namesake of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in the Columbus Metropolitan area. The project greatly reduced Typhus deaths, and the designs are still used to this day.
This would not be Cap City’s last run-in with water problems. In March of 1913, a disastrous flood hit the Franklinton area. This was the worst weather disaster to ever hit Ohio, leaving a hundred Columbus residents killed and thousands more without a home. To prevent another catastrophe of this magnitude, the Army Corps of Engineers made a number of recommendations: widening the Scioto River through downtown, constructing new bridges and building a retaining wall along its banks. These changes are responsible for creating the city layout of Columbus that we are all familiar with nowadays.
Shortly after this dark period, the post-WWI economy led to a construction boom for Cap City. We received a number of architectural milestones like the Civic Center, the Ohio Theatre, the Union Citadel and a new Ohio Stadium. Even the NFL’s head office was located in Columbus from 1921 to 1941.
Columbus’ diverse economy helped to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression on the city. World War II created a number of jobs which brought in many migrants from rural parts of Appalachia. This influx of job-seekers positioned Columbus as the state’s largest city in terms of land area and population. The growth would continue at a strong pace through the mid 20th century.
In the later half of the 20th century, the interstate highway reached the Central Ohio area. Suburbanization began to draw people out of the city, into the newly erected suburbs. This sucked a lot of life away from the Downtown and other urban areas. Early efforts to revitalize these areas compromised the city’s architectural heritage. Historical buildings, such as the Union Station and the Neil House Hotel, were torn down to construct offices and retail space.
Not all progress was negative, though. Features such as the Nationwide Plaza, the Scioto Mile, the Greater Columbus Convention Center and Capitol Square have helped to bring business and commerce back to Downtown Columbus.
In the 1970s, the Short North neighborhood of Columbus was nothing more than a dilapidated strip of foreclosed housing. Suburbanization had drawn most of the residents away from the area, leaving behind high crime rates and unwanted property. That all changed when artists began to take notice of the cheap rent and land prices. As art galleries began to open in the area, the Short North developed a Bohemian reputation. Today, the Short North Arts district is a flourishing cultural hot spot in the Midwest, complete with restaurants, boutiques, shops, and of course, several art galleries. The revitalization of the Short North has become a textbook example of proper area re-branding.
A similar rejuvenation has taken place in the Arena District. Built on the former site of the Ohio Penitentiary, the area was re-designed in the late 1990s to house Nationwide Arena, Huntington Park, the LC Pavilion, the Arena Grand Theater and an ever-expanding roster of restaurants, shops, offices and housing structures.
Other urban areas of Columbus are also being reclaimed to realize their full potential. The German Village has become a highly sought-after residential area for well-to-do residents. Olde Town East is undergoing a similar renaissance as the Short North. The Ohio State University has purchased area around the campus to develop into student housing.
This urban growth has inspired a rebirth in the heart of Downtown Columbus itself. Previously empty storefronts are being bought up and rented by the dozens. Major construction is taking place at the site of the Columbus Commons. The youth population is beginning to swarm back to the area, resulting in noticeably less empty streets than in decades past. It’s safe to say that we are still in the midst of this historical period in Columbus history. Only time will tell what new developments this revitalization will bring!