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Columbus, OH: Capital of Ohio

Unlike most state capitals, which were already cities when they were chosen as capital, Columbus, Ohio was founded specifically for that purpose.  In the early 19th century, a law was passed in Ohio specifying that the location of the state capital should be centrally located in the state.  A small group of businessmen from the town of Franklinton (named in honor of the recently deceased Benjamin Franklin) offered to donate property on the opposite side of the Scioto River for use as the state capital.  The offer was accepted, and some brave land speculators ventured into the thick forest to plot out the lots for what would become Columbus.

Initially, the most popular name for the would-be capital was “Ohio City”.  It looked quite certain, in fact, that Ohio’s capital would take that name.  That is, until a very opinionated business owner from Franklinton by the name of Joseph Foos heard the name “Ohio City”.  He was a notoriously outspoken, but very well-liked, member of the community – and he had another idea for the capital’s name.  Joseph Foos, an adventurous man by all accounts, and a famously ardent admirer of Christopher Columbus, called a meeting of his friends from the naming committee.  Foos convinced his friends to name the fledgling capital for his favorite explorer instead.  Thus, the name Columbus was chosen.

The area that would become Columbus has been inhabited for at least 3,000 years.  The people who settled there preceded modern Native American tribes that European settlers encountered in the 17th century.  In fact, we know very little about the people who lived in the area because they were already gone when modern Native Americans migrated to the area.  However, the proof that they lived in the area is clear to see, due to the presence of their burial mounds.  These mounds were formed throughout centuries, by a fascinating burial process.  When a revered member of the community died, a small wooden structure was made to inter the body.  The structure was then burned, and dirt spread over the ashes.  After centuries, thousands of these ceremonies had been performed and the dirt and ashes formed mounds. These mounds can still be seen all over the Midwest.  The Columbus area, in particular, featured numerous burial mounds.  Mound Street was named for a particularly large burial mound that had been located at the intersection of Mound and High Streets.

Columbus was officially founded in 1812.  The first two years saw a flurry of construction.  By 1814, Columbus boasted a school, church, penitentiary, newspaper office and numerous residences.  Populations remained relatively low until the start of the Civil War, when Camp Chase was set up in Columbus to train Union soldiers.  It also housed a prison for Confederate prisoners of war.  The prison was fairly relaxed at first, with Confederates given the freedom to roam the city after giving their oath not to run.  That changed as the war went on, with as many as 10,000 soldiers detained at Camp Chase and conditions steadily worsening.  Though the camp was demolished after the war, the Confederate cemetery remains, where lie over 2,000 who lost their lives while in detention at Camp Chase.

In the years after the Civil War, Columbus saw the growth of industry.  By 1880, Columbus had nearly 400 factories, 50 churches, numerous newspaper and magazine outlets, and a whopping 600 saloons.  In the very early 20th century, thanks to illuminated arches above High Street, Columbus was known as “the most brilliantly illuminated city in the country.”  The arches were removed in 1916, but were replaced almost 90 years later in 2002.

Throughout its history, Columbus has had to contend with devastating floods.  Throughout the 19th century, multiple floods hit Columbus and Franklinton.  The worst of these was the Great Flood of 1913.  The rain began on Easter Day, March 23rd, 1913 and continued for days unabated.  The waters rose and rose, and on March 25th became too much for the wooden levees of the Scioto and Miami river valleys.  Columbus was flooded and Franklinton, on the lower, west side of the river, was almost wiped out completely.  In some cities along the riverfront, waters rose as high as 20 feet.  The danger wasn’t only from the volume of the water, but also from its strong current.  According to survivors, the water rushing through the destroyed levees was like water from a hose.  The flood destroyed 500 homes in Columbus and 93 people died.  The floods hit cities all over the country and, when all was said and done, more than 1,000 people lost their lives in the flooding.  According to Bishop Milton Wright, father of the famous Wright brothers, the flood was, “second only to Noah’s.” It is still considered the worst natural disaster in the history of the state of Ohio.

Following the disaster, the Army Corps of Engineers recommended widening the river downtown, and the construction of additional bridges and a floodwall to prevent future flooding.  After WWI, the nation’s economy experienced a boom and reconstruction of Columbus began in earnest.  The following decade saw the construction of a new stadium, Civic center, and the Ohio Theatre, among others.  The Great Depression didn’t hit Columbus quite as hard as it did Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit and other Rust Belt cities, due to Columbus’s more diverse economy.  WWII brought with it a plethora of new jobs and, with them, a surge in population.  Development of the national highway system further expanded Columbus’s population and frequent annexations throughout the 20th century increased its footprint.  By the 1990’s, Columbus had grown to become Ohio’s largest city in terms of both population and square miles.

Columbus is also home to the largest public university in the country, Ohio State University.  Like the city of Columbus itself, the creation of OSU was a deliberate act by a legislature.  Rather than choosing one of the two existing Ohio universities for land-grants, then-governor Rutherford B. Hayes instead chose to create a new college, located in the state capital.  Ohio State University began its story under a different name, Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College.  Today, Ohio State University is among the nation’s finest public institutions, recognized as a “Public Ivy,” or public university with an Ivy-League quality education.

Columbus is a very large city, both in terms of population and in area.  Its history is one of perseverance and gumption, and which reflects the power of the opinions and desires of the individual American.  Columbus found its name as the result of one individual’s passionate desire to see it so.  Ohio State University, as well, found its lot in life as the result of one person’s passion and willingness to see a dream made real.


Image Source:

“Columbus-ohio-skyline-panorama”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –