The Scioto River and its neighbor, the Olentangy, which join near Downtown Columbus, have been at various times fickle and fragile, and at other times firm and forbearing.
Native Americans have been living at the forks of the Scioto and Olentangy rivers for hundreds of years. The prehistoric mound builder people constructed large earthen mounds for ceremony and cemetery as well as defense. The historic native Wyandot, Shawnee and Delaware people lived here after the mound builders.
None of them built bridges. Bridges would come later – considerably later.
Today we take our river crossings for granted. Traveling either by foot or conveyance, it is easy to traverse the Scioto from Downtown to the nearby Franklinton neighborhood using one of many bridges.
When pioneer/surveyor Lucas Sullivant arrived at the forks of the Scioto in 1797, he liked what he saw. Sullivant was one of a handful of strong and self-reliant men contracted to survey a large land grant between the Miami and Scioto rivers called the Virginia Military District.
Sullivant, who took his pay in land, laid out town plans to lure settlers to plots he had acquired near what is now Plain City and Bellpoint in central Ohio. But the place he liked best was the forks of the Scioto.
So in 1797, Sullivant laid out a town on the west bank of the forks. An admirer of Benjamin Franklin, Sullivant called his new town Franklinton. Taking the naming to excess, he placed the new town in Franklin Township in Franklin County.
The new town had its share of problems. In 1798, Sullivant returned to his home in Kentucky to settle his affairs and prepare for a move to Ohio. He left about 15 settlers in Franklinton. When he returned, none of them were there. The entire town – such as it was – was washed away in a flood. Undaunted, Sullivant moved his town to higher ground to the west and offered free town lots on Gift Street to potential newcomers.
In 1801, Sullivant and his wife moved into a handsome brick home in the middle of town. But there was no bridge across the Scioto.
At the time, there did not need to be one – across the river was the Refugee Tract. From Fifth Avenue on the north to Refugee Road on the south, the tract extended west for several miles and was set aside for people from Nova Scotia who had lost property in the Revolutionary War because of their support of the rebels. Most of them never made it to Ohio. They sold their land warrants to men calling themselves “proprietors.”
The “High Banks Opposite Franklinton” was devoid of people, heavily forested and punctuated by a 40-foot-high Native American mound near what is now the intersection of Mound and High streets. At the foot of the mound and on the crest of the ridge was a grove of plum trees, and stretching down the high ground to the river was a pawpaw patch.
So in a world without bridges, how did those few local folks get across the river? They improvised.
An early history told the story: “The river was crossed by fords and ferries. The Old Ford, as it was called, was at the point where the Hocking Valley Railroad now crosses the river near the foot of Main Street. A canoe ferry was kept there by James Cutler, whose buxom daughter Sally, it is said, sometimes manipulated the oars for the transient traveler.”
A later account by P. H. Olmstead said: “Our usual route to Franklinton, then (in 1814) the county seat, was to cross the river just below Comstock’s Slaughter House, generally in a ferry boat kept by Jacob Armitage, the Scioto those times being much higher than at present.”
Gen. Joseph Foos, a militia officer, tavern owner and entrepreneur, also ran a ferry, near the place where the two rivers met. These ferries and fords served the needs of Franklinton for almost 20 years. It was not until 1815 that the Ohio General Assembly granted a charter to Sullivant to build a bridge. Constructed as an uncovered plank-board bridge, it opened to public acclaim on Nov. 25, 1816.
People paid a fee for their wagons and herds of animals to cross Sullivant’s bridge. Those claiming to be walking to church were exempted from payment. Sullivant sometimes found himself asking a crosser why he was heading to church with 50 head of horses or an even larger herd of pigs.
The bridge, becoming increasingly rickety, lasted until 1832, when a trio of army engineers came to town and supervised the construction of a new, sturdy, covered Broad Street bridge. It would survive a few floods and carry people and goods for many years. In the decades since, there have been several replacement bridges at Broad Street, and the current bridge was opened to traffic in 1992.
Tiring of all that paddling, Sally Cutler, moving on to other things, would undoubtedly have approved.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News and The Columbus Dispatch.