Old World of Darkness: Columbus
18th and 19th Centuries
The region where modern-day Columbus is found was once called the Ohio Country, under the control of the French Empire through the Vice-royauté of New France. European traders flocked to the area, in the interests of the fur trade.
The area was consistently caught between warring factions, including Native American and European interests. In the 1740s Pennsylvania traders had overrun the territory until the French forcibly evicted them. In the early 1750s George Washington was sent to the Ohio Country by the Ohio company to survey, and the fight for control of the territory would spark Europe’s Seven Year’s War with the French and Indian War.
The Treaty of Paris ceded the country to the British Empire in 1763. During this period the country was routinely engaged in turmoil, with massacres and battles occurring.
Virginia Military District
Following the American Revolution, the Ohio Country became part of the Virginia Military District under the control of the United States. Colonialists from the East Coast moved in, but rather than finding an empty frontier, they encountered people of the Miami, Delaware, Wyandot, Shawnee, and Mingo nations, as well as European traders. The tribes resisted expansion by the fledgling United States, resulting in years of bitter conflict. The decisive battle of Fallen Timbers resulted in the Treaty of Greenville, which finally opened the way for new settlements. By 1797, a young surveyor from Virginia named Lucas Sullivant had founded a permanent settlement on the west bank of the forks of the Scioto River. An admirer of Benjamin Franklin, Sullivant chose to name his frontier village “Franklinton”. Although the location was desirable in its proximity to navigable rivers, Sullivant was initially foiled when, in 1798, a large flood wiped out the newly formed settlement. He persevered, and the village was rebuilt.
After Ohio achieved statehood in 1803, political infighting among Ohio’s more prominent leaders resulted in the state capital moving from Chillicothe to Zanesville and back again. The state legislature finally decided that a new capital city, located in the center of the state, was a necessary compromise. Columbus was chosen as the site for the new capital because of its central location within the state and access by way of major transportation routes (primarily rivers) at that time. The legislature chose it as Ohio’s capital over a number of other competitors, including Franklinton, Dublin, Worthington, and Delaware. Prior to the state legislature’s decision in 1812, Columbus did not exist. The city was designed from the first as the state’s capital, preparing itself for its role in Ohio’s political, economic, and social life. Named in honor of Christopher Columbus, the capital city was founded on February 14, 1812, on the “High Banks opposite Franklinton at the Forks of the Scioto known as Wolf’s Ridge.” At the time, this area was a dense forestland, used only as a hunting ground.
The “Burough of Columbus” was officially established on February 10, 1816. Nine people were elected to fill the various positions of Mayor, Treasurer, and others. Although the recent War of 1812 had brought prosperity to the area, the subsequent recession and conflicting claims to the land threatened the success of the new town. Early conditions were abysmal with frequent bouts of fevers and an outbreak of cholera in 1833.
The National Road reached Columbus from Baltimore in 1831, which complemented the city’s new link to the Ohio and Erie Canal and facilitated a population boom. A wave of immigrants from Europe resulted in the establishment of two ethnic enclaves on the outskirts of the city. A significant Irish population settled in the north along Naghten Street (presently Nationwide Boulevard), while the Germans took advantage of the cheap land to the south, creating a community that came to be known as Das Alte Südende (The Old South End). Columbus’s German population constructed numerous breweries, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, and Capital University.
With a population of 3500, Columbus was officially chartered as a city on March 3, 1834. The legislature carried out a special act on that day, which granted legislative authority to the city council and judicial authority to the mayor. Elections were held in April of that year, with voters choosing one John Brooks as the first mayor. Columbus annexed the separate city of Franklinton in 1837.
In 1850 the Columbus and Xenia Railroad became the first railroad to enter the city, followed by the Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati Railroad in 1851. The two railroads built a joint Union Station on the east side of High Street just north of Naghten (then called North Public Lane). Rail traffic into Columbus increased—by 1875 Columbus was served by eight railroads, and a new, more elaborate station was built.
On January 7, 1857, the Ohio Statehouse finally opened to the public after 18 years of construction.
During the Civil War, Columbus was a major base for the volunteer Union Army that housed 26,000 troops and held up to 9,000 Confederate prisoners of war at Camp Chase located at what is now the Hilltop neighborhood of west Columbus. Over 2,000 Confederate soldiers remain buried at the site, making it one of the largest Confederate cemeteries in the North. North of Columbus, along the Delaware Road, the Regular Army established Camp Thomas, where the 18th U.S. Infantry was organized and trained.
By virtue of the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act, the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College (which became The Ohio State University) was founded in 1870 on the former estate of William and Hannah Neil.
By the end of the 19th century, Columbus saw the rise of several major manufacturing businesses. The city became known as the “Buggy Capital of the World”, thanks to the presence of some two dozen buggy factories, notably the Columbus Buggy Company, which was founded in 1875 by C.D. Firestone. The Columbus Consolidated Brewing Company also rose to prominence during this time, and it may have had achieved even greater success were it not for the influence of the Anti-Saloon League, based in neighboring Westerville.47 In the steel industry, a forward-thinking man named Samuel P. Bush presided over the Buckeye Steel Castings Company. Columbus was also a popular location for the organization of labor. In 1886, Samuel Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor in Druid’s Hall on S. Fourth Street, and in 1890 the United Mine Workers of America was founded at old City Hall.48 In 1894, James Thurber, who would go on to an illustrious literary career in Paris and New York City, was born in the city. Today the Ohio State’s theater department has a performance center named in his honor, and his youthful home near the Discovery District is on the list of National Register of Historic Places.
20th Century to Present
“The Columbus Experiment” was an internationally recognized environmental project in 1908, which saw the construction of the first water plant in the world to apply filtration and softening, designed and invented by Hoover brothers, Clarence and Charles. Those working to construct the project included Jeremiah O’Shaughnessy, name-bearer of the Columbus metropolitan area’s O’Shaughnessy Dam. This invention helped drastically reduce typhus deaths. These designs are still in use today.
Columbus earned one of its nicknames, “The Arch City”, because of the dozens of wooden arches that spanned High Street at the turn of the 20th century. The arches illuminated the thoroughfare and eventually became the means by which electric power was provided to the new streetcars. The arches were torn down and replaced with cluster lights in 1914, but were reconstructed from metal in the Short North district in 2002 for their unique historical interest.
On March 25, 1913, a catastrophic flood devastated the neighborhood of Franklinton, leaving over ninety people dead and thousands of West Side residents homeless. To prevent future flooding, the Army Corps of Engineers recommended widening the Scioto River through downtown, constructing new bridges, and building a retaining wall along its banks. With the strength of the post-WWI economy, a construction boom occurred in the 1920s, resulting in a new Civic Center, the Ohio Theatre, the American Insurance Union Citadel, and, to the north, a massive new Ohio Stadium. Although the American Professional Football Association was founded in Canton in 1920, its head offices moved to Columbus in 1921 and remained in the city until 1941. In 1922, the association’s name was changed to the National Football League.
The effects of the Great Depression were somewhat less severe in Columbus, as the city’s diversified economy helped it fare marginally better than its Rust Belt neighbors. World War II brought a tremendous number of new jobs to the city, and with it another population surge. This time, the majority of new arrivals were migrants from the “extraordinarily depressed rural areas” of Appalachia, who would soon account for more than a third of Columbus’ rising population. In 1948, the Town and Country Shopping Center opened in suburban Whitehall, and it is now regarded as one of the first modern shopping centers in the United States.
The construction of the interstate highway signaled the arrival of rapid suburb development in central Ohio. In order to protect the city’s tax base from this suburbanization, Columbus adopted a policy of linking sewer and water hookups to annexation to the city. By the early 1990s, Columbus had grown to become Ohio’s largest city in both land area and in population.
Efforts to revitalize downtown Columbus have had some success in recent decades, though like most major American cities, some architectural heritage was lost in the process. In the 1970s, landmarks such as Union Station and the Neil House Hotel were razed to construct high-rise offices and big retail space. The National City Bank building was constructed in 1977, as well as the Nationwide Plazas and other towers that sprouted during this period. The construction of the Greater Columbus Convention Center has brought major conventions and trade shows to the city. The Scioto Mile is a showcase park that is being developed along the riverfront, an area which has already seen the development of Miranova Corporate Center and The Condominiums at North Bank Park. Corporate interests have developed Capitol Square, including the local NBC affiliate locating at the corner of Broad and High.
The 2010 United States foreclosure crisis has forced the city to purchase numerous foreclosed, vacant properties — either to renovate them or to demolish them — at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. As of February 2011, there are an unprecedented 6,117 vacant properties in Columbus, according to city officials.