Thomas Kelah Wharton’s sketches provide the earliest glimpses of Columbus, Ohio


With the coming of Intel to Ohio, the transformation of central Ohio with new factories and new people seems to be forthcoming. One might wonder if this part of the world has ever seen such rapid change.

And the short answer would be — yes.

Ed Lentz

Ed Lentz

Thomas Kelah Wharton came to Columbus in 1832. He was 17 and traveling with his family to a new life in a new land, having recently arrived from Great Britain. His father was a promoter of people and property. But it also kept the family patriarch on the move from Piqua to Springfield and then to Columbus and on to Zanesville. Because of this, his wife and several children were left behind in several places. One of those places was Columbus, where Thomas took a bit of time and looked around.

For the rest of us, it was a good thing he did.

Ed Lentz history column: Canal lock was worthy choice for artist’s fascination

Standing on the riverbank near what is now North Bank Park, Wharton sketched what is now known to be the earliest known view of the town of Columbus. In an era before photography, Wharton captured the essence of the town. In a notebook full of sketches that he had made while moving across America, only two were from Columbus. One looked toward downtown. The other was a view of the lock basin at the entrance of the Ohio and Erie Canal.

Of all the things a newcomer could see in Columbus — the two-story brick statehouse, the inns and houses along High Street and even the 40-foot mound at High and Mound streets — why did Wharton spend his time sketching a canal lock near the Scioto River?

In his personal journal kept through these years, he never explained other than to say he spent some time “making a picture.”

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He made this picture because he saw something worth remembering — the coming of the canal.

Ohio — like most of the states and territories north and west of the Ohio River in the wake of the American Revolution — had produced in its deep dark soil new crops of corn and wheat and new herds of sheep and hogs. But it had no way to get all those products to market.

New England had much of the same situation. New York Gov. Dewitt Clinton had solved some of its problems with a proposed canal to link the Hudson River and the Atlantic to the Great Lakes. The canal was near the Mohawk River but stood on its own as a link between the ocean and the inland river.

Thomas Kelah Wharton's sketch shows a view of the lock basin at the entrance of the Ohio Canal in Columbus.

Thomas Kelah Wharton’s sketch shows a view of the lock basin at the entrance of the Ohio Canal in Columbus.

With Clinton as the strong and strenuous supporter of canals in general and his in particular, it did not take long for other states to seek canals of their own. In Ohio, the main promoter was politician and eventual governor Ethan Allen Brown. As early as 1818, he was urging Ohio to build a canal linking the Ohio River to Lake Erie. It took until 1825 to get the project underway.

On July 4, 1825, a large celebration was held at Licking Summit near what is now Buckeye Lake to launch the construction of the canal. The main speaker and sod-breaker of the day was none other than Clinton.

Constructing the canal was a difficult task. A later account of immigrants reported the problems faced by the largely German and Irish workforce.

“The workers who were exposed to the malarial atmosphere of the swamps were often scoured by the febrile disorders of the period.”

But the work continued. A later local history noted that “on Monday, April 30, 1827, work on the lateral branch of the Ohio Canal connecting the capital with the main stem at Lockbourne was formally begun and duly celebrated.”

After a “cold collation” was served to the collected crowd, toasts were drunk to “the honor of Ohio, the Ohio Canal, the Canal commissioners and the citizens of Columbus. … In the evening the event of the day was further signaled with a ball.

“On Tuesday, Sept. 13, 1831, water was let into the Columbus branch, usually called the feeder, for the first time and at 8 pm Friday, Sept. 23 of the same month, the firing of cannon announced the arrival of the canal boat ‘Governor Brown’ from Circleville.”

The completion of the canal was complemented by the arrival of the all-weather National Road. The growth of Columbus and central Ohio was rapid. Some 2,000 people were living in Columbus in 1831. By 1834, the state capital was a city of 5,000. During all this change, Wharton passed through town and noted that much of the change was centered on the lock and basin where the canal had entered the Scioto River.

And that is where he made his second and final sketch of Columbus.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News and The Columbus Dispatch.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Thomas Kelah Wharton’s sketches provide the earliest glimpses of Columbus

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