City Quotient: What kinds of boats once sailed the Olentangy River?

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

I saw an old illustration, drawn around 1900, showing steamboats in the Olentangy River near Beechwold. What kind of boat traffic was in the river then, and why isn't it used like that today?

Believe it or not, the Santa Maria didn't sail up the Scioto from Portsmouth to Columbus. In fact, neither of our rivers hosted much in the way of boat traffic. They were too rocky and shallow. Canoes and rafts could usually navigate them, but they were too small to provide any kind of commercial service. Some flatboats went down the Scioto with various cargo. These were shallow-draft one-way unpowered boats (really just boxy rafts) that could range as far south as New Orleans. Apparently there were some mid-19th century efforts to run steamboats on the Scioto, but CQ found no reports about whether they were successful (a safe guess would be no). When the Ohio and Erie Canal's Columbus feeder opened in the 1830s, canal boats could come up from the main canal at Lockbourne and dock along the Scioto riverfront, but after 20 or 30 years the railroads put a stop to that.

The canal boats could reach downtown Columbus because a dam created a navigable slackwater pool, and that's also what happened on the Olentangy next to what today is Beechwold, southwest of Morse and High. There was no canal there, but a dam created a head of water to power the adjacent Weisheimer Mill. The original Columbus Zoo opened (and closed) in 1905 on the land that became Beechwold. An old image of the zoo shows canoes, rowboats, sailboats and small steam launches frolicking on the pool above the dam, but they were confined to just that short stretch of river.

Jeff Darbee is a preservationist, historian and author in Columbus. Send your questions to cityquotient@columbusmonthly.com, and the answer might appear in a future column.