History on the rails

Trains still come to Columbus.

They run beneath the convention center, along I-71 and across the Scioto River. Take a late-night walk through Campus, German Village, the Short North or Franklinton, and you'll hear steel wheels running the tracks.

Years ago, you could get on one.

"That's how business was conducted," said Jeff Darbee, a local historian and author of Taking the Cars, a retrospective on Columbus rail travel. "That's how people went shopping. That's how people traveled, and it worked for a long, long time."

Being central to many Midwestern cities and a gateway to the expanding West, Columbus needed a reliable train station early on.

In 1850, 20 years before Ohio State University was founded, the corner of High Street and what's now Nationwide Boulevard was the north edge of town. All three of the city's union depots were built near the intersection's northeast corner.

The first was simply a depot, some freight yards and place to hail a horsecar. Pedestrians and vehicles had to wait while locomotives standing across High Street loaded people and goods. From day one, people thought it looked like a barn.

A new station farther from the street was opened in 1875, and the giant Victorian building quickly became a hub for a slew of budding railroad companies: Columbus & Xenia, Columbus & Hocking Valley, Pan Handle and others.

Several companies operated individual stations, but High and Naghten streets held the city's nerve center, its beating heart.

"Every day there was an ebb and flow of businessmen, visitors, families, freight, express shipments, mail and telegrams, all of which funneled through the depot," Darbee writes in his book.

By 1869, the year of the Golden Spike, you could travel from one coast to the other. But in Central Ohio, the scale was often smaller. Students traveled home to Newark or Lancaster. Farmers in Athens vacationed in the big city. Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton and Toledo were connected by steel and timber.

Rail had enveloped Columbus, and the city needed a proper train station. It got one in 1897.

Designed by famous Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, the Union Station complex included three major components: an arcade of shops and covered walkways, a large station set back 500 feet and a viaduct that elevated High Street over the tracks. It was known for delicate stonework, wide arches and a feel of elegance.

Burnham and his contemporaries believed stately buildings could inspire a virtuous city, and Columbus thrived in the days of Union Station up to the 1950s.

Sadly, as the number of daily trains was reduced during the next 20 years, Union Station became too expensive to maintain. Columbus eyed the land for a Downtown convention center and began to demolish the storied arcade on Oct. 22, 1976, in an event known among preservationists as the "Friday Night Massacre." One arch survives, transported to the Arena District's McFerson Commons.

The depot soon followed, as did the Amshack built hastily to replace it, and the Columbus Convention Center now sits on most of the rail right-of-way. One challenge the city faces in revitalizing rail travel is having no space for a train station, though many Midwest stops function simply with a small boarding platform.

Only tracks and corridors remain, but in them lies a way to reconnect Ohio and the Midwest in a way cars and planes never did.

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