As It Were: Picture tells story of life in Columbus in early 1900s

2022-06-15 13:16:16 By : Mr. Feng Chen

Plenty of resources are available to learn about what life was like in Columbus many years ago.

One could consult lengthy histories, the files of old newspapers and letters and diaries of former residents. Those materials are available at several local libraries. One also could learn a lot about a city by looking at a picture.

Our picture with this column is a case in point.

It’s about 1910 and Columbus is the capital and home to many state institutions. It’s also a bustling metropolis of more than 181,000 residents, and many don’t work for the state. Some are employed by the steel mills and glass factories of the far south side called Steelton. Others are working on the north side in places like Jeffrey Manufacturing, making mining equipment.

Still others work at one of the several universities nearby or in the retail stores, theaters and hotels in town. And downtown is the center of things. Before the 1890s, Columbus was a “walking city,” meaning most people walked to church, to school or to the public markets. People usually rode horses for pleasure or to travel a longer distance.

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Then the electrified streetcar came along.

A number of early horse-drawn streetcar lines merged and the Columbus Railway Power and Light Co. became the main streetcar line in the city. Streetcar lines ran along most major thoroughfares, and new neighborhoods were developing – some as many as 5 miles from downtown. People could live that far away and still make the journey to work in the heart of the city.

This photograph was commissioned by the Detroit Publishing Co., which paid photographers to capture images of America to be made into postcards or other forms of marketable photography. The company was successful because many images were extraordinarily detailed.

We are looking south on High Street from State Street. Statehouse Square is behind and to the left of the photographer, who took a chance by placing a large camera in the public right of way. He stayed long enough to snap a picture and then retreat from traffic.

The street is made of brick. Over the years, Columbus had experimented with a variety of paving methods for its major thoroughfares, including packed gravel, cubed wood blocks and cobblestones. None of these worked well and eventually were replaced with cheap, durable clay paving bricks. The streets still were bumpy, but that was endurable because most people were not traveling that fast.

The nature of that traffic also was changing. Horse-drawn carriages still could be seen, but the use of automobiles was increasing.

Down the center of the street are a series of flag-bedecked arches. Originally made of wood with gas lights, the arches were created for a veterans convention in 1888. Later replaced by metal arches with electric lights, the arches carried the wires that powered the streetcars. And the arches gave Columbus a nickname – Arch City.

In the center of the photo is a cylindrical building. It is the clock tower of the F&R Lazarus & Co. The department store had been on the southwest corner of Town and High streets since 1851.

The majority of the buildings in the picture were built with iron frame construction faced with brick or stone in the years after the end of the Civil War in 1865. The buildings are only 3 or 4 stories because most people did not wish to climb too many stairs.

But the age of the skyscraper was coming to Broad and High streets with the Wyandotte Building, the Capitol Trust Building and the Hayden Trust Building. All could be quite tall because a reliable elevator was available. Cities are cauldrons of change, and that change came to this section of High Street, as well.  

The people tend to be formally dressed if visiting downtown. That clothing is different from ours and probably less comfortable. But these people are doing what urban folks still do. One brave soul is jaywalking across the wide street. Other people are window shopping while others are waiting to cross the street.

It is a pleasant day in Ohio’s capital city.

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