Scioto Riverfront History
The Downtown Columbus Riverfront: From the 19th Century to Today
Created as part of the Scioto Greenways project, the riverfront history project is designed to bring new life to the rich history of downtown Columbus. Since its founding in 1816, Columbus has gone through many changes to meet the needs of residents. These changes are particularly evident along the banks of the Scioto River downtown, where this once industrial hub has transformed into high-rise office buildings and government offices.
Even before Columbus was established as a city, the riverfront drew in Native Americans and, later, settlers, who were attracted to the agricultural advantages it provided, including floodplains fertile for growing crops. In 1830, thanks to the opening of a feeder canal linked to the Ohio-Erie Canal, it became a means of limited transportation and shipping opportunities. The arrival of the National Road in 1833 further improved our standing. But the first major leap forward in Columbus history was the city’s first railroad connection, the Xenia & Columbus Railroad, which made its way to the west bank in 1850.
Initially providing service to Cincinnati, the railroad continued to build connections, adding the likes of Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. over the next 30 years. The railroad’s connection to the river, which was a significant asset for shipping, helped connect Columbus to the rest of the country, turning the city into an industrial power and giving it a key role in the Civil War.
An Industrial Revolution
As Columbus’ population grew, so did uses of the riverfront – and not all of them pleasant. The carelessness of industries and individual residents caused the water to be polluted by garbage, sewage and manufacturing waste by the mid- to late 1800s. Among the businesses that dotted the downtown riverfront – which employed a wide variety of Columbus residents, from ethnic neighborhoods to the diverse “Flytown” community – were:
- Manufacturing plants
- Buggy companies
The Cleanup Process
Columbus’ first stab at riverfront revitalization was an early 1900s plan to improve the downtown river, but implementation stalled when the city was hit by the Great Flood of 1913, which swept away all but one of the downtown bridges, shut down the entire city for five days and killed 93 people. Over time, though, an urban renewal project was spearheaded, resulting in the demolition of a multitude of blighted buildings and the widening of the river through a series of dams. Though the project was not completed in its entirety, several of its pivotal buildings were, including the modern-day sites of:
- The Bricker Federal Building
- Columbus City Hall
- The Ohio Supreme Court Building
Becoming the Mile
The installation of the new dams widened and deepened the river, and also helped prevent the sorts of floods the downtown area had seen previously. But it also made the river slow, difficult to navigate and, sometimes, unpleasant to be near. So when government and civic leaders in 2010 sought ways to breathe new life into downtown Columbus – for which the public feedback process generated more than 1,100 comments – the removal of two low-head dams was the most transformative idea. New parks had been created over the course of years, but the removal of the dams allowed for the creation of recreational space much closer to the banks of the river, and for easier use of the river itself for activities such as kayaking.
Effects of the Mile’s Transformation
The Main Street Dam was removed in late 2013, restoring the river’s natural flow and improving its ecosystem, and also allowing for development to begin in areas that had once been underwater. Now, not only has 33 acres of green space been created, but Downtown’s green spaces – old and new – are now better connected to the Scioto Peninsula, East Franklinton and The Ohio State University campus, as well as to the city’s bike network, the regional trail network and the Ohio to Erie Trail.