For more than 140 years, the Neil House hotel was “The Place to Stay” in Columbus.
Famous people lived there from time to time. People of “property and standing” and others who wished to be so fortunate spent their time in the rooms, taverns and ballrooms of this iconic place. It was not a palace, but people seeking a truly American landmark found it in the Neil House.
And it all began when a very busy man saw a need and had in mind a way to meet it — with a little help from the homefront.
William Neil was a man of vision and energy who found a home and base of operations for himself and his family in the then-frontier village of Columbus that was the new capital city of the relatively new State of Ohio. Born in Kentucky, Neil came of age there and found a wife named Hannah Schwing, who he brought to Ohio in 1816.
The Neils were not members of the initial generation of explorers, trappers, traders and frontier settlers who braved bad seasons and recurring battles in order to bring some order to a world at the edge of a moving frontier. The Neils were part of that second young generation who came into Ohio in the wake of the War of 1812, when the last of the wars with the British and before them the French and their Native American allies were finally over. A flood of new people seeking new lives for themselves came into Ohio.
Some of the new people simply wanted a place to farm and time to make it their own. Other people, like William Neil, were more than a little more ambitious. He came into the village of Urbana with his wife and tried to establish himself as a banker and trader. In those days, all it took to be a banker was a sign on the cabin saying “bank” and the hope that people would bank with you. Some did, but Neil soon was looking for a place with more opportunities.
He found that place in Columbus in 1818.
Hired initially to be the clerk in a local bank, Neil soon was branching out into real estate speculation and an interest in local transportation. The small towns and villages of early Ohio were soon linked one to another by stage coach lines that were usually one man and one coach and irregular service. Neil and some of his friends realized that if one could join those little companies together into one big company, they would have a quite successful enterprise.
Over the next several years, William Neil used methods both persuasive and fearful — and by today’s standards not all that legal or ethical — and put together a stagecoach empire. He came to be called the “Old Stagecoach King.” By 1840, if one boarded a coach in Wheeling, West Virginia to go anywhere north of the Ohio River, one was riding on a coach owned by the Neil and Moore Company.
Over the years, Neil had a acquired a 300-acre farm as well as a number of other properties in downtown Columbus. While he had been away stagecoaching, Neil left Hannah with an inn and tavern immediately across High Street from the two-story brick Statehouse on Statehouse Square.
It did quite well, and in 1839, Neil replaced it and most of a city block with the large and impressive Neil House Hotel. It was a wonder to behold compared to the small hotels nearby. Entering a large lobby with waxed floors of solid walnut flanked by tall walls of the same wood, one gazed up to a wide and welcoming staircase lit by large overhead candle chandeliers and a welcome from a friendly staff.
The Neil House with impressive service and a huge ballroom soon became a regional center of society and culture in central Ohio. William Neil was a Whig who became a Republican, and the Neil House by the 1850s was a political base as well.
Then, on Nov. 6, 1860, as Republicans were about to elect their first President in Abraham Lincoln, the Neil House caught fire. Hampered by sustained winds and an inefficient Columbus fire service, the hotel burned to the ground.
In the wake of the fire, fire service in Columbus was improved and William Neil quickly built a new Neil House. It was smaller than the first building, but was as impressive in both substance and service. In time, it became the home of Ohio Gov. William McKinley and a continued home to the powerful and those who simply preferred a quality place to stay.
In 1924, it was replaced by a third, even larger Neil House that lasted until 1980. That building was replaced by the current Huntington Center, 41 S. High St.
Hannah Neil, who ran the Neil House for many years, died in 1868. William Neil followed her in 1870. But their legacy in Columbus and Ohio is with us still.
If you follow Neil Avenue north, you will come to what was once the Neil farm — now the campus of the Ohio State University.
Source: The Columbus Dispatch