- Historic Sites
Cities Of The Middle Border
Some became great, others stayed as they were-- and their story tells of the rise of the Midwest
December 1956 | Volume 8, Issue 1
One hundred and fifty years ago the story of America was a story of the open country—of rural people, living for the most part in villages or on farms. A great part of the country had not even been explored, and huge sections of it did not belong to the United States. By 1830, although the number of Americans living west of the Alleghenies was last approaching the number east of them, many intelligent men seriously believed that it would take anywhere from 500 to 2,000 years to settle and develop the country.
Today, in contrast, the story of America has become very largely a story of the city. Of all the changes that have come to America, one of the most striking has been the country’s amazing urbanization. A few generations ago the average American was a farmer; today he is a city dweller.
At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore were the only cities in the United States with white populations of more than 10,000. When the 1950 census was taken, 484 cities had passed the 25,000 mark, and within their limits lived 41 percent of the entire population.
Nowhere has the change been more dramatic than along what used to be called the Middle Border—the great Middle West, an open land of frontier communities and small towns only a century ago, today a thickly settled, highly industrialized area of thriving cities that have burgeoned far beyond anything imaginable in 1856.
The enormous difference can be seen, visually, in such exhibits as the set of contrasting lithographs and photographs recently arranged by the Chicago Historical Society. But while the visual disparity is evident, what is not so clear is the reason behind the cities’ changing faces.
What happened, out on the Middle Border, to make some of these cities double, treble, or quadruple their populations in so short a time? Why should one city grow so much faster than another? Why should St. Paul, Minnesota, have a population of 300,000 today while Davenport, Iowa, has 75,000—when both were approximately the same size a hundred years ago?
We start with Galena, Illinois, not because the town is typical, but because it is not. Almost alone among middle western cities, Galena has lost population over the last hundred years. In 1856 it had 10,000 inhabitants; today it has fewer than 5,000.
As anyone who knows Latin could guess, lead made Galena. As early as 1816, when the first rank of advancing settlers was still hundreds of miles to the south and east, miners were taking lead from the hills in which Galena nestles. Production increased steadily until 1845, when the region accounted for 54,500,000 pounds of the 65,000,000 pounds of lead mined in the entire country. Steamboats regularly poked their way through the narrow Fever River to the town’s busy wharves, and the inhabitants built solid, comfortable homes, churches, and public buildings on the sides and crests of the hills. It is significant that the first railroad to be built out of Chicago was named the Galena and Chicago Union (though it never managed to get to Galena), while the Galena Branch of the Illinois Central, as originally conceived, was considered of no less importance than the Chicago connection. A Harper’s Magazine reporter, visiting Galena in 1857, was awed, not only by the rush of trains and steamers, and by the churches and schools, but also by the “thousands of tons” of zinc and copper ore, dug up in the course of lead mining but simply abandoned for want of coal to smelt them. “Galena will not go backward,” reported Harper’s.
But lead unmade Galena. By 1845, the miners had just about exhausted the easily accessible, high-yield deposits. Costs rose, production dropped. For a decade the distribution of lumber and merchandise more than made up for the loss of revenue from mining, but the railroad, which everyone expected to be a boon, took away more business than it brought. Miners drifted away to California and Nevada. The Panic of 1857 hit hard. In the depression that followed, Galena slipped from her place as the metropolis of northwestern Illinois to the undistinguished status of a county seat. Her citizens have made repeated efforts to resuscitate the little city, but today its principal asset is the aura of the past that makes it a delight to artists, antiquarians, and tourists.
In some ways the story of Dubuque parallels that of Galena. Iowa too had its lead deposits, and Dubuque stood at their center. And when mining shrank in importance, wholesale merchandising made up the losses as it did in Galena. But here the similarity ends. Dubuque—or rather the eastern shore of the Mississippi opposite the town—was the terminus of the Illinois Central; Galena was only a station near the end of the line. Settlers were swarming into Iowa’s fertile prairies; Dubuque was their natural place of supply. Nathaniel H. Parker, the author of a contemporary gazetteer, Iowa As It Is in 1856 , asserted that Dubuque, “the present terminus of two important railroads, has recently become a place of great commercial importance.” In that year 85,045 people registered in Dubuque hotels.