Mr. Neil’s Legacy Lives On In University District

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William Neil(Photo: .)
William Neil(Photo: .)

When I first came to Columbus – more than a few years ago – I came to study at The Ohio State University. After a time I also did a bit of teaching and some work for the Ohio Historical Society when it was still at 15th and High Streets. And because I was young and curious and full of energy I spent more than a little time walking the side streets of the neighborhood around the campus.

There were – and still are – several neighborhoods in the University District. Each is unique with a life and character all its own. As to which is the best? I’ve lived in several – and at the time – each was the best for me. In my walks and other peregrinations around the area, one name came up over and over again. As I came to learn there were more than a few good reasons why.

Passing through the heart of the campus and continuing for several blocks to the north is Neil Avenue. At that time there was still a Neil House Hotel across the street from the Statehouse. Learning that there had been a Neil House in Columbus since 1839, I wondered why a street three miles to the north carried the same name. There was a good reason. That was where the Neils lived.

William Neil was born in Kentucky in 1786. Like a lot of young men of his era, he came north into the new State of Ohio to seek his fortune. He came to Columbus in 1818 with his young wife Hannah. For a new arrival, he showed a remarkable understanding of how the six year old state capital worked. He built a two story log inn and tavern across the street from the original two story brick statehouse. In short order he was making some money.

Leaving Hannah in charge, Billy Neil set off to make the rest of his fortune. He did it with men, and horses and stagecoaches – and quite a lot of them. Buying some stage lines and crushing others with ruthless competition, by 1840, Billy Neil had become “William Neil, the Old Stagecoach King.” It was said that by that time if one wanted to travel anywhere north and west of the Ohio River, one was probably riding a coach owned by William Neil.

Over the years, Neil and his wife Hannah built their hotel, raised a family and invested in canals, railroad and other local businesses.

They also bought a country home. What is now Neil Avenue was his private lane. On the ridge overlooking the flood plain of the Olentangy, he built a spacious home in the southern country style with a large covered porch sweeping around the entire house. The floors were of wide thick walnut boards and each of the main rooms had large fireplaces. William Neil could stand on that porch facing the Olentangy River and be comfortable in the fact that all of the land he could see – he owned.

There is no known picture of the great house. It burned in 1862 and with it many of the family’s mementoes. Hannah Neil died in 1868 having helped begin organized charity in Columbus. The Hannah Neil Mission is named for her. William Neil died in 1870.

At that time, the newly formed Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College was looking for a home. They found one at the Neil Farm.

Today the Main Library at The Ohio State University is where William Neil’s house once stood. Sometimes I wonder what he would think of the place his farm has become. As a man who worked very hard all of his life to make his world a better place, I think he would be pleased that many, many other people come here every day to do the same.

Columbus Neighborhoods – University District airs tonight at 8:00 on WOSU – TV.

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