City Quotient: Granville T. Woods and Ohio Village

Meet the Columbus-born mechanical genius who transformed railroad technology; plus, a look at Ohio Village

Columbus Monthly
Granville T. Woods

I saw the name Granville T. Woods on a sign but don’t know anything about him. Who is or was he?

Woods was an African American inventor born free in Columbus in 1856. Having attended school until only the age of 10, Woods apprenticed in machine and blacksmithing shops. Later working as a railroad fireman and engineer, he studied electricity and electronics. After a stint in Illinois, Woods moved to Cincinnati and began his remarkably fruitful career creating devices in transportation technology, particularly railroads. 

His first patent came in 1889 for an improved steam boiler firebox. He also worked on the use of electricity as a railroad power source that today, for example, enables Amtrak trains between Boston and Washington, D.C., to operate without putting out any diesel exhaust. One of Woods’ most celebrated inventions was a telegraph that communicated between fixed stations and moving trains, making it unnecessary to stop to send or receive messages. His prolific innovations led others to draw comparisons between him and Thomas Edison. 

Woods, who died in 1910, destitute after years of legal wrangling to gain control of his inventions, has been commemorated in Columbus by the Rickenbacker Woods Foundation at 1330 E. Livingston Ave. The foundation also has preserved Columbus air ace Eddie Rickenbacker’s boyhood home, which is listed as a National Historic Landmark. 

I drive by the Ohio History Center all the time but don’t know much about the historic village along the north side of the main building. What is its story?

Ohio Village is a living history museum, with real people working at historical tasks. Other examples are Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts (where CQ worked as a costumed host in the 1960s) and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Sturbridge’s historic buildings came from around New England, and Williamsburg’s are on their original sites. Ohio Village is different; it was created 1974, with new buildings featuring designs and details typical of the 19th century. The village originally represented the period around the Civil War, but today it shows life in a typical Ohio community around 1890. The village, unfortunately, is currently closed because of the pandemic, but you can make a virtual visit—just go to the Ohio History Connection website. 

So what kinds of buildings are there? Among others, you’ll see a schoolhouse, a doctor’s home, a freight office, the town hall, a newspaper office, a general store, a market house and a funeral parlor. There’s also a blacksmith shop and a female seminary. Once you can actually visit again, you can be photographed in vintage garb and on a penny-farthing—a scary, high-wheel bicycle. Murphy’s Lodging House, which shows what small-town hostelries were like, is a good place for a break from touring. Most of the buildings are arrayed around the Village Green, and once you pass the gatehouse, you enter a new/old world where the nearby state fairgrounds and I-71 no longer exist.

Sources: U.S. Department of Transportation website; Rickenbacker Woods Foundation & Learning Center; The New York Times; Ohio History Connection website and maps 

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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.