Thursday, March 1, 2012

How Columbus Almost Lost It!

Why The Statehouse Took Twenty-Two Years.

Partisan politics and economic downturns are nothing new. The only football being kicked around Columbus in the early to middle 1800’s was political, and that football was the State House.

The Whigs, in 1838, wanted government to play a bigger role, and people to pay more taxes. The Democrats wanted to keep government and the people’s business separate. Does this sound like role reversal? This is a story about the dance the politicians/businessmen did to keep Columbus as the capital and the general public of Ohio supportive of it.

It has everything to do with a little railroad to a quarry near the center of Columbus.

In 1839, when Columbus was twenty-seven years old, the cornerstone of the new State House was laid with much ballyhoo. Then the legislature repealed the whole project, in a fit of pique against certain “unappreciative” citizens of Columbus. Sentiment flared for moving the capital to another Ohio city.

A group of Columbus businessmen stepped in. They had to be subtle. They got a harmless-looking resolution through the legislature which said nothing about a State House, but appointed commissioners to see about buying a quarry (for canal locks and city buildings) and a right-of-way from the quarry to Columbus. Nothing happened for six years and the businessmen laid low.

Then the commissioners were appointed (In all, four boards of commissioners and five architects under two state constitutions and twelve governors, figured in the long era of construction; but we’ll just concentrate on this key part). On this commission were Joseph Ridgway, Jr. and Sam Medary, of Franklin County; and William A. Adams, of Muskingum County.

The aforesaid businessmen formed a charter for the Columbus and Xenia Railroad. This was a bluffing move to get the state to pay for a little railroad from a quarry to the penitentiary. There, the convicts would “dress” the stones in preparation for buildings. The underlying goal was to get some track and a bridge built by the state, which could be used by both railroad projects.

But the legislature languished and the charter did not raise many funds. The canal feeder to Columbus, finished in 1831, was still the focus of transportation.

However, in 1845, the Whigs came into power. Ridgway Jr. held many public offices. He threw a dinner party at the Neil House to support the State House and railroad projects. This time William Neil added his support. The legislature was much more sympathetic. Fat cats wanted progress.

Two quarries were considered: one owned by Medary (Democrat) and one owned by William Starling Sullivant (Whig, and a close associate of Neil). When Sullivant’s was chosen, Medary lambasted the deal in his newspaper, the Ohio Statesman. But Medary soon gave up his interest in the newspaper, as he had lost his job as state printer with the Whig sweep. Medary did get back to incendiary newspapering later.

The Columbus and Xenia railroad operators made a big show of appointing directors and surveying a fifty-four mile route to Xenia. Then all work halted for two years. The penitentiary railroad was the real focus. Three miles of track and a bridge were completed in 1846. Operating the line was the warden of the penitentiary and two penitentiary directors.

Ridgway Jr. was one of the penitentiary directors. Here’s what else he did; he ran an iron foundry, a warehouse business, a freight-forwarding business, he was a director and secretary of the Columbus and Xenia railroad, a member of the Columbus city council, city recorder, State House commissioner, and state representative (all without computers!)

In the 1847 elections, the acrimonious railroad funding issue caused outcries of “monopoly” and “excess taxes” (Sound familiar?). A railroad line to Cleveland was on the ballot. There was revival of the threat to move the capital, fortified by the fact that no work had been done on the State House for years. But the voters in both Columbus and Franklin County went overwhelmingly for the taxes and the railroads. The financial depression of 1837-1847 was over, due to the impetus of the Mexican War, the first telegraph line into Columbus, the newspapers moving into daily printing, better mail and shipping service.

The penitentiary stone project was zipping along. They were making money on convict labor, shipping stone out of Columbus, running the quarry, the railroad and the penitentiary on the profits. The State House commission seized the directorship away from the penitentiary (though Ridgway was on both.)

Then cholera struck. Ridgway died, also many convicts. Sullivant took Ridgway’s place as director. The Columbus and Xenia Railroad opened! Gaslight brightened up Columbus!

Voters rejected new railway taxes, but the die was cast. A spur of railroad was finally built into downtown Columbus (they had been transporting multiple-ton stone by wagon to the State House site). The first locomotive arrived downtown. At first this was a source of merriment. The little line was used to take picnickers to grounds near the quarry site. But Columbus residents soon grew weary of the train’s noise, danger, and smoke.

The railroad line to Cleveland opened in 1851. Fire destroyed the old State House in 1852. The legislature met in halls in Columbus and even though construction of the new State House was “speeded up,” the building was not completed until 1861.

Finally, the little railroad ended. The quarry bridge was taken down, the rails were made into a State House fence. A Civil War soldiers’ hospital was built on the quarry picnic grounds. This became a “soldiers’ home” and then was torn down.

Columbus’s place as the capital was finally secure, after State House construction and shenanigans of twenty-two years.

Christine Hayes

No comments:

Post a Comment