1888 Columbus Convention Was One for the Ages

September is with us once again. September is a month of change. The summer is coming to an end. School is starting and the crops are coming in. Days are getting shorter and the long heat of summer is finally beginning to ease up.

A sure sign that summer is over and autumn is close is the increase in volume and frequency of the rhetoric in a presidential election year.

Columbus and central Ohio have seen a number of memorable Septembers. For many years the Ohio State Fair was held in September. Conventions have often been held in Columbus – near the center of the State – as well.

But in terms of sheer size and grandeur, September of 1888 is still hard to beat.

The Ordinance of 1787 had created a form of government for the Northwest Territory and the first permanent settlement of the newly independent United States followed at Marietta in 1788. In 1888, a celebration of the Centennial of these events was held in several places around the state. One of the major commemorations took place in Columbus in concert with the Ohio State Fair in early September.

That by itself was more celebration than most Ohioans saw in most years in those days. But an even bigger celebration soon followed.

In the years after the Civil War, one of the largest organizations in the country was the Grand Army of the Republic – the Union Army veterans organization. Founded to represent the interests and meet the needs of Union veterans and their families, the GAR was a major political and social force.

In 1888, the GAR decided to hold its Twenty-Second Annual Encampment or convention in Columbus. More than 100,000 veterans and 150,000 friends and family members visited Columbus and stayed for most of the second week in September. The high point came when more than 50,000 veterans marched down High Street. The parade took four hours and forty-five minutes to pass the reviewing stand and was the largest gathering of Union veterans since the Grand Review in Washington at the end of the Civil War.

Columbus had never seen anything like this. The capital city had a population of about 80,000 people and now found itself entertaining about 250,000 people for a week. To put this in perspective, it would be as if 3,000, 000 people stopped by and decided to spend a week in Columbus. The obvious question is – Where do you put all of these people?

The answer – in addition to every hotel, boarding house and rented room in the city – was in new tent cities – four of them in all – erected at strategic points around the town. It was called an encampment because that is exactly what it was.

Probably the most visible legacy of the encampment was a series of eleven arches erected along High Street from what is now the Convention Center to the county courthouse. Constructed of wood and lit by gaslights, the arches provided “illumination and decoration” and proved to be quite popular. Later replaced by metal arches lit with electric lights, the arches carried the wires providing power to the city’s streetcar system.

For almost a quarter century, Columbus was called the Arch City and what had been a convenience for visiting veterans had become a symbol for the city itself.

All in all it had been a memorable month.

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