Athens is a city in and the county seat of Athens County, Ohio, United States. It is located along the Hocking River in the southeastern part of Ohio. A historic college town, Athens is home to Ohio University (22,000+ students) and is the principal city of the Athens, Ohio Micropolitan Statistical Area. The official population of Athens in the 2010 U.S. Census was 23,832.
Athens is located in what was once the eastern region of two major Native American mound-building groups, the Adena culture from c. 1000 BCE to 200 CE and the Ohio Hopewell tradition, c. 300 BCE to 700 CE. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Shawnee, an Algonquian tribe, were the primary tribe of Native Americans living in what would become Athens County. According to a 1794 map by Thomas Kitchin, no settlement existed in the Athens area during the time immediately prior to the founding of the city.
The first permanent European settlers arrived in Athens in 1797, more than a decade after the United States victory in the American Revolutionary War. In 1800, the town site was first surveyed and plotted, but it was not incorporated as a village until 1811. In the meantime, Ohio had become a state in 1803. Ohio University was chartered in 1804, the first public institution of higher learning in the Northwest Territory. Previously part of Washington County, Ohio, Athens County was formed in 1805, named for the ancient center of learning, Athens, Greece. Ohio University in Athens was established with the first federal endowment of an educational institution in the United States. In July 1787, the Congress of the Confederation gave to the Ohio Company of Associates "two townships of good land for the support of a literary institution" in the newly created Northwest Territory. During The First Session of the Second Territorial General Assembly, held in Chillicothe from November 23, 1801 to January 23, 1802, the General Assembly passed an act establishing the "American Western University" at Athens. The act was approved by Arthur St. Clair, Governor of the Northwest Territory on January 9, 1802. However, no university with the name of American Western University would be established. Ohio became a state in 1803 and on February 18, 1804, the state legislature passed an act establishing the "Ohio University" in the town of Athens. Athens received city status in 1912, following the 1910 census showing the population had passed 5,000 residents, the requirement for city status in Ohio.
Originally, large tracts of land in Athens and Alexander Townships were set aside through a contract between the Congress (under the Articles of Confederation) and the Ohio Company of Associates, a group of American Revolutionary War veterans. These lands were given to Ohio University by the Federal government. This was the first federal land grant for a university, pre-dating the Morrill Act by more than 70 years. At first, lands were mostly leased out, but the failure of many lessors to pay their rents resulted in most of the land being sold. The sale of these lands funded the growth of Ohio University. Today it is one of the largest institutions of higher learning in Ohio, with an enrollment of over 19,000 on the Athens campus and over 28,000 for all campuses.
The earliest industry in the area was salt production, followed by iron production and coal extraction. Today, the largest employer in the county is Ohio University. In 1843, the Hocking Canal opened, enabling shipping from the Ohio River up the Hocking River, which passes through Athens, to Nelsonville, Ohio, and points beyond. However, the canal was closed during cold winters when it froze over.
The first railroad reached Athens in 1857. In the late 19th century, an interurban line opened between Athens and Nelsonville and operated for some years. The Athens Lunatic Asylum, then called the Athens State Hospital, opened in 1874. This was located on high ground to the south of town and to the south of the Hocking River. In the late 19th century the hospital was the town's largest employer. The state hospital was eventually decommissioned and the property was deeded to Ohio University. It is now known as The Ridges. Much of the building space has been renovated for offices and research space, and most of the grounds have been set aside as open space, including a land lab.
In 1904 the U. S. Army and the Ohio National Guard conducted joint training exercises near the city. Multiple US army regulars became drunk and were arrested by National Guard Provosts for causing disturbances. The arrests angered the regulars; on Friday a large contingent set out from camp to free an arrested comrade. The armed regulars were stopped by provosts and the ensuing quarrel quickly escalated into a shoot-out on Washington Street, during which one guardsman was killed and five others were wounded. The University and in turn the City saw large growth during the post-World War Two era and again during the Vietnam War era. Growth slowed in the 1980s with small increases in growth into present times.