Hocking Valley Railroad helped bring a growth spurt to Columbus
The first settlers from central Ohio came to land at the junction of the Scioto and Olentangy rivers for a number of reasons.
But a lot of newcomers have just come for the dirt.
Most of the high banks at the Forks of the Scioto were covered with what today we call ancient forest. The trees were quite old and were up to 100 feet high and 30 feet wide. As impressive as the trees were, even more impressive was the earth beneath them.
Settlers from the east and south were used to thin, unproductive soils. It was often said that the main crop of New England farms was rocks. But in central Ohio, the topsoil was up to 5 feet deep. With a land rich in game and clean water, new inhabitants often felt like they had reached a nice place.
The land has proven to be productive. Despite occasional problems with fires, floods, tornadoes and epidemic disease, farmers in Ohio by the early 1820s were producing large quantities of corn and grains and large herds of cattle and pigs. . The real problem was getting the action to market.
The arrival of the Ohio and Erie Canal and the National Highway in the early 1830s helped. Now farmers and ranchers had easier access to markets in the East. But the canals froze in winter and the roads were not passable most of the time. What was needed was a safe, reliable and affordable mode of transportation.
The answer was the railroad.
Railways had been inventors’ toys since the 1820s. Stephenson’s rocket was a side-turned steam engine connected to the wheels of a trainer on a wooden track. It worked, but it took a while to adjust. The wooden rails broke and the steam engines sometimes exploded. But by the late 1840s, the new trains were running safely and often enough to encourage virtually every city to want one.
The first arrived in Columbus in 1851. It was the Columbus and Xenia Railroad. One might wonder why a rail would be built all the way to the small seat of Greene County. This is where you could join the Little Miami Railroad and get to Cincinnati, then the largest city in the Midwest.
Other railroads soon arrived in Columbus and connected the capital with cities like Cincinnati, Cleveland and Toledo. These railroads made modest Columbus, with its population of 6,000, a center of transportation and commerce, and by 1850 a town of about 10,000.
All these railways, canals and roads made Columbus a commercial center, as well as a government center. But a railroad, soon to be built, will transform Columbus even more and make the city something new and different.
There was a new “Machine in the Garden” and its gardener was a man named Milbury M. Greene. Mr. M. Greene, as he liked to be called, was an engineer, financier and land speculator. In the 1850s he became interested in the steel plants along the Ohio River and in the large coal deposits of southeastern Ohio that supplied them with fuel. He became convinced that a railroad in Southeast Ohio would make him a rich man.
It was not a new idea. In 1852 a railroad company backed by investors from Columbus and Lancaster attempted to start up but never succeeded. Further attempts followed, but it wasn’t until 1863 – in the midst of the Civil War – that Greene and several Columbus bankers and wealthy people formed a railroad and called it the Mineral Railroad Co. A the company’s prospectus explained why.
“The route of this road crosses the largest coal deposit west of the Allegheny Mountains … where a six foot thick seam of coal exists above the surface on both sides of the road … mountains for steam and grid purposes.
With Greene as chief engineer, construction of the new railroad was underway. On May 2, 1867, the name of the railway was changed to Hocking Valley Railroad. From 1870, the railroad went from Columbus to Athens, bringing immense amounts of cheap coal, iron and wood to the capital. Now the manufacturing made sense.
Columbus became an industrial city, as well as a commercial and government city. In 1900, there were four steel mills and a huge glass factory in the Steelton district, south of Columbus. At the north end of town, Jeffrey Manufacturing employed men who made coal mining machines for the mines served by the Hocking Valley Railroad.
Eventually, the Hocking Valley Railroad merged with the Toledo and Central Ohio and linked Lake Erie with the Ohio River and the lands in between.
Every railroad is a part of the making of American history. Some have really changed history. The Hocking Valley Railroad was one of them.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for This week’s community news and The Columbus Dispatch.