Cities Of The Middle Border

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The decline of river traffic, which hurt Galena badly, affected Dubuque not at all. Railroads, fanning out beyond the Mississippi, needed ties and telegraph poles. Huge rafts of logs floated down from Wisconsin and Minnesota, and Dubuque’s sawmills did the rest. Thus the Iowa city found new industries to sustain its growth while Galena wilted for the lack of anything to replace its lead mines.

But Dubuque differed from Galena only in degree. As other cities grew along the Mississippi and in the interior of Iowa—Davenport, Burlington, Waterloo, Des Moines—Dubuque’s importance as a trading center declined. And finally the lumber trade played out. A residue of furniture factories and a still sizeable commercial area kept the city from losing population. It has, in fact, grown, but far less rapidly than the United States as a whole, and less rapidly, even, than other cities along the great river.

Davenport is an example. As late as 1855 Davenport was no more than a village. Kennedy’s Progress of the Republic, a comprehensive geography published in 1853, does not mention it. Fisher’s Gazetteer of the United States, published in the same year, accords Davenport a population of 3,400 and states that it was destined to be a place of importance—but that was a prediction with which the author flattered almost every crossroads in the country.

Isabella Bird, an English traveler who visited the town in 1855, would probably have smiled at Fisher’s prediction. Crossing the river from Rock Island, her party landed at what she called “a clearing containing the small settlement of Davenport.” There, “in a long wooden shed with blackened rafters and an earthen floor,” she breakfasted on “johnny-cake, squirrels, buffalo-hump, dampers, and buckwheat, tea and corn spirit [bourbon whiskey?], with a crowd of emigrants, hunters, and adventurers.” Evidently Davenport held no other attraction, for the party immediately re-embarked for Rock Island.

But there was more to the settlement in the clearing than Mrs. Bird saw. She appears to have overlooked the piers of a bridge rising in the Mississippi, the first to span the mighty river in its entire length. The bridge would be finished in the spring of 1856, and after that the cars of the Rock Island Railroad would run on to Davenport. Already the town was exporting large quantities of grain and thousands of hogs and cattle; with the completion of the bridge its commercial importance would double and treble. Like Dubuque, Davenport enjoyed a thriving lumber business, sawing the logs that came down the river and sending ties and planks into the rapidly settling interior.

Did culture languish in these new settlements? Writers of the time apostrophize their libraries and “historical” institutions, and this anecdote was printed in New York exactly a hundred years ago: A New Yorker meets a young man from Davenport, who says he has come to the East to buy goods for his store back home:

“What goods?”

“Music and musical instruments.”

“What! For Davenport, where the stumps are hardly dug out?”

“Yes, sir. I sell music and musical instruments.”

“Only?”

“Yes, to the amount of five thousand dollars a year.”

For forty years—from 1860 to 1900—Davenport and Dubuque kept pace in population. Then Davenport pulled ahead. In 1950 it counted 75,000 inhabitants with 5,000 more in contiguous Bettendorf; Dubuque had 50,000. The reason for the disparity lies in the fact that when the lumber trade died away Dubuque had nothing to replace it, while Davenport had found other industries. In the 1880’s nearby limestone quarries were opened and the manufacture of cement was begun. Plants for fabricating iron and steel were founded about the same time. Davenport became, and remains today, a city of diversified industry, at least keeping pace with the country as a whole in growth.

Industry, transportation, and a location that brings trade—these seem to be the factors that make cities. Certainly these are the factors that made St. Louis. When Pierre Laclède Liguest picked its site in December, 1763, he announced that he was establishing a settlement “which might hereafter become one of the finest cities in America.” Each passing decade has proved that the prediction was not idle talk. Before the Revolutionary War St. Louis had become the center of the western fur trade. The acquisition of Louisiana Territory made it the crossroads of western expansion. Year after year caravans of settlers bound for the West crossed the Mississippi at St. Louis and bought their outfits for the long trip across the plains.

But it was the traffic on the river that made a city. By 1840, after 77 years, St. Louis had a population of 16,400. In 1850 the census takers counted 78,000; in 1860, 160,000. These were the years when the stacks and masts of the river steamers tied up at St. Louis looked like the denuded trunks in a burned-over forest. The rivermen sinned boisterously in the dives along the wharves and brawled in the streets, but in spite of their picturesque ways, the city impressed visitors by its substance and maturity. Richard Cobden, the English reformer, visiting there in 1859, spoke for many when he recorded in his diary: