The Columbus mystery that was too obscure for our Hidden Columbus cover package

We had a lot of fun putting together our "Hidden Columbus" cover story, but my favorite Columbus mystery didn’t make the cut. It’s an odd revelation I discovered reviewing Central Ohio’s U.S. census data about 10 to 15 years ago. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but, according to the data set I saw then, some 50 to 100 people in the Columbus region commute to work via boat.

If you know Columbus, then you know this statistic doesn’t make a lot of sense. Is it an error? The work of pranksters? Is canoe commuting a thing? Ultimately, I decided this tidbit was too obscure for our main feature, but nothing is too wonky and idiosyncratic for an editor’s column. Census News Team, assemble!

I launched my investigation by returning to the source. And to my surprise, the latest census charts show no Columbus water commuters. What happened? Was my memory faulty? Then I hit on a new mystery as I looked at the data more closely. While no one claims to travel to work via boat these days, it turns out 55 people say they use trains.

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This is also a conundrum, as Columbus is the largest city in the U.S. with no passenger rail service. I contacted the Census Bureau and asked for an explanation. “I’ll send your question to our experts and get a response to that as soon as I can,” a Census spokesman told me. I’m still waiting for that response.

I wondered if the 55 mysterious rail commuters might have been train engineers working for one of the major rail companies in the region. I contacted CSX—which operates a rail yard and an intermodal facility in Columbus—but the company wasn’t willing to explore my theory. “Any question concerning the U.S. census data should be directly addressed to the U.S. Census department,” a CSX spokesperson told me.

With nowhere else to turn, I contacted Stu Nicholson, who knows more about trains than pretty much anyone I know in Columbus. Nicholson is the public affairs director for All Aboard Ohio, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of passenger rail users. Previously, he worked for the Ohio Rail Development Commission and the Central Ohio Transit Authority. Like me, he wondered if the 55 mysterious rail commuters might be train engineers or conductors, but he also recognized that there is a major flaw to that explanation. The train employees would still need a way to get to their places of work—and Columbus has no passenger trains to get them there. In other words, unless they’re using handcars à la Bugs Bunny, then they’re probably driving, walking, taking a bus or cycling to work.

Desperate, I threw out one last far-fetched explanation: train-hopping hobos. “I’ve known a couple in my lifetime, and it’s kinda doubtful,” Nicholson says with a laugh. “I’m not sure many of them will be filling out census forms.”

I guess some mysteries will never be solved.