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History Lesson: The Downtown Columbus Riverfront

Doug Motz Doug Motz History Lesson: The Downtown Columbus Riverfront
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Image courtesy of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Research Library.

The Scioto Mile Park opened on Thursday July 7, 2011 and has been receiving rave reviews! While not linked by geography to the Columbus Commons, which opened slightly earlier on May 26, these “sister” parks have added a great deal of public park space to the core of Downtown Columbus. Prior to their openings, the only planned green-space was around the Statehouse – where our first mayor “Judge” Jarvis Pike actually grew wheat and corn on the front lawn – and the small park frontage at the Eastern intersection of State Street and South Grant Avenue in front of the Carnegie Library constructed in 1907.

This isn’t the first time in Columbus History however, that a Park has been planned for the riverfront.

In 1900 the Columbus Board of Trade started a movement for a “Better and Greater Columbus”. This translated into improved sewer lines, a cleaner water supply and other much needed practicalities of a growing city. This work did not include parks and many civic leaders wanted Columbus to have improved and more beautiful parklands. With the support of Mayor Robert H. Jeffrey, the Columbus City Council passed a resolution in 1904 that began,  “Columbus is greatly in need of larger parks and park systems”. This resolution allowed Council to appoint a commission to “thoroughly canvass the project”

In 1908, the Civic Center Plan was unveiled. This included government buildings, parks and a mallway of government and office buildings across the Scioto River into Franklinton. It’s interesting to note that the planners of the time had the Centennial birthday of Columbus on their horizon and they remark in the 1908 Columbus Plan:

“Surely there could be no worthier celebration, appealing alike to State and City, than the realization of the vision of the city as the most beautiful and best ordered State Capital in the Union”

Photo courtesy of The Columbus Metropolitan Library.

Ultimately, this plan never came to fruition but that did not stop the continuing efforts to clean up the riverfront.

So what was along the Eastern side of the riverfront before the Scioto Mile that made so many people want to beautify it?

Let’s start at North Bank and proceed south along the riverfront. If it was the mid-19th Century and we were looking just North at North Bank Park at the current Arena District Parking Garage and Daniel Burnham Square greenway we would see the Ohio Penitentiary. This correctional facility was constructed in 1834 and housed prisoners until 1972. The Ohio ‘Pen’ shut down in 1984 and the State sold it to the City of Columbus in 1995. Notable inmates include Captain Morgan of the Confederacy who led the infamous ‘Morgan’s Raid’ into Southern Ohio during the Civil War and O. Henry who wrote “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”.

‘The Pen’ was also fashionable tourist attraction for visitors to Columbus at the turn of last century and the inmates actually constructed all of the furniture for the Ohio Governor’s Mansion when it opened at 1234 East Broad street in 1920 (it was previously the residence of Columbus Piano manufacturer Charles Lindberg).

As we continue our walk South along the riverfront we would likely travel along Scioto Street or Water Street. Neither of these exist today and along this stretch were several factories and coal yards including the Hayden Saddlery Hardware Factory, the Ohio Tool Company, the Capital City Stove Works and the City Boilers. Additionally, the Sanborn Maps of 1887 show several structures across from the Ohio Tool Company listed as ‘Tenements’. These tenements and boarding houses continued all along Scioto Street from where the Santa Maria is currently anchored at Battelle Park to where the Ohio Supreme Court stands today.

Photo courtesy of the Columbus Historical Society. (Click to enlarge)

Although the Civic Center Plan was never adopted, nature intervened and in 1913 the Scioto River flooded and swept away many of the tenements, boarding houses and factories. When a January firestorm claimed City Hall in 1921 – it stood where the Ohio Theatre is today – the City chose to rebuild City Hall along the riverfront and began the beautification of the Eastern bank of the Scioto. In addition to City Hall, The AIU Citadel (now known as the Leveque Tower) was completed in 1927 and the Ohio Departments Building (now our Ohio Supreme Court) finished construction in 1933.

If we were to keep strolling south towards Town Street, we would pass the City of Columbus Prison, many more tenements, storage facilities for tanning and tallow, Jacksons Junk Shop and finally would arrive at Canal Street near Main where the Columbus Feeder Canal of the Erie Canal entered in 1834. Near that Southern intersection still stands the former Columbus Arsenal which is likely the only landmark still standing that we would recognize today along the Scioto Mile – the Cultural Arts Center.

Given all of that, it’s highly understandable why so many city leaders didn’t want the first view of Columbus to be multiple Prisons, Tenements, Saloons, and a Junk Shop. So in 1920, the City put up for vote a plan for “Victory Park” – a modified version of the Civic Center plan of 1908.

In an article from the Columbus Dispatch of April 25, 1920, boosters for Victory Park shared visions of  “aquatic sports, a water carnival, picnic dinners, and fireworks displays on the water”. Dispatch editorial cartoonist Billy Ireland sketched his support and drew Christopher Columbus assisting with the construction by hoisting up a cornerstone that read, “The New Riverside Park: The Cornerstone of Progress for a Better and More Beautiful City”. However, when the bond issue came up for a vote, it needed a 2/3 majority of “Yes” votes and ultimately only received slightly more than 52 % approval.

Image courtesy of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Research Library.

The depression set in during the 1930’s, was followed by World War II and in the 1950’s many of the citizens of Columbus turned their thoughts to the greener pastures of the burgeoning suburbs. But a few downtown leaders kept thinking about improving the look of the Riverfront. On Friday October 12, 1962 the Citizen Journal reported on the dedication of the ‘Avenue of Flags’ along Civic Center Drive by Mayor Sensenbrenner and Mel Dodge and a decade later on Sunday January 26, 1975 the Dispatch announced the plans for “South Riverfront: A Park for People” with a donation of $500,000.00 from John Galbreath to pay for fountains at Main and the Scioto River. We know it today as Bicentennial Park as it was dedicated on July 4th 1976.

So part of the beautification espoused by the planners of 1908 – a full 103 years ago – has now become a reality. It may be a little late for the Centennial, but it is certainly a beautiful early birthday present for the Capital City’s Bicentennial. In this instance, it can truly be said that, ‘all good things come to those who wait!’

More photos of the new Scioto Mile can be found HERE and HERE.

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