- 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
“The city of St. Louis is, in the solidity of its buildings, the extent of its commerce, and the reputed wealth of its capitalists the third in importance in the States.—I have seen no place in the interior which gives the same impression of solid wealth and extensive commerce.”
Chicagoans, a boastful breed, like to recall that in forty years their own upstart city passed long-established St. Louis, and subsequently left it far behind. The implication is that when the railroads supplanted the river steamers, St. Louis withered and Chicago bloomed. But St. Louis didn’t wither. Railroads could be built to and from the city on the Mississippi as well as anywhere, and they quickly replaced the commerce that the river had carried. Industry, moreover, was firmly established as early as 1850.
Optimistic St. Louisans predicted in 1850 that by 1900 the city would have a population of a million. The actual 1900 figure turned out to be 575,000, but that represented a steady, decade-by-decade gain which has continued in the Twentieth Century. In 1950, with 850,000 inhabitants, St. Louis ranked eighth among the cities of the country.
St. Louis, in fact, outran a rival that had taken what appeared to be, in the first thirty or forty years of the Nineteenth Century, a lead that would hold up forever. During most of these years Cincinnati deserved to be called the Queen City. Even the acidulous Frances Trollope, who lived there from 1828 to 1831, admitted that in spite of all shortcomings it was “a city of extraordinary size and importance.” Later English visitors were less restrained. In 1859 Cobden recorded in his diary:
“The City has a substantial and prosperous appearance.—Like Philadelphia it depends very much on its manufactures, besides being the centre of a very rich agricultural region, its pork market being the most famous in America.—Lying along the right bank of the Ohio river, with its wooded banks on both sides and its graceful reaches as it winds its course below the City, it is one of the most beautiful sites for a town I have ever seen.—The population is about 200,000 [actually it was 160,000] of which nearly one half are Germans & Irish. … At dinner at the hotel heard a discussion as to the number of people in Cincinnati who are worth $500,000, when it seemed to be the opinion that there were 20 to 25 persons owning that amount of property.—It was thought there were hundreds possessing $100,000.”
Mrs. Trollope confessed that upon her arrival she thought “the many tree-covered hills around, very beautiful,” but went on to say that she tired of the view so quickly that long before she left she would have welcomed the sight of Salisbury Plain. But to Isabella Bird, in 1855, the view from any of the hills which ringed the city was magnificent. “I saw it first bathed in the mellow light of a declining sun,” she wrote, ”… hill beyond hill, clothed with the rich verdure of an almost tropical clime, slopes of vineyards just ready for the wine-press, magnolias with their fragrant blossoms, and that queen of trees the beautiful ilanthus, the ‘tree of heaven’ as it is called; and everywhere foliage so luxuriant that it looked as if autumn and decay could never come.”
But Cincinnati had more to be proud of than pleasing vistas. In mid-century, no other city in the interior United States could offer more convincing evidence of industry and prosperity. Mrs. Bird catalogued the signs of well-being: “heavily laden drays rumbling along the streets—quays at which steamboats of fairy architecture are ever lying—massive warehouses and rich stores—the side walks a perfect throng of footpassengers—the roadways crowded with light carriages, horsemen with palmetto hats and high-peaked saddles, galloping about on the magnificent horses of Kentucky—an air of life, wealth, bustle, and progress.” The city’s factories turned out furniture, boots and shoes, locks, guns, tools, and carriages, and enough salted and pickled pork to earn for it the name, “Porkopolis.”
Yet Cincinnati had reached its zenith, at least comparatively. The city had profited from the westward movement of the American people; but the flood tide had passed. After 1850 Cincinnati would grow so slowly that at the end of a century seventeen cities would rank ahead of it. Even in Ohio, it would slip to second place, outstripped by what was a mere village when Cincinnati was the queen of the old Northwest.
In 1850 Cleveland had a population of 17,034. But Cleveland also had a fine harbor, canal connections, and ten miles of railroad. By 1860 the population had jumped to 43,417, and the ten miles of railroad had become hundreds, connecting the city with the eastern seaboard and with Chicago, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. And by 1860 Cleveland was an iron ore port with a red avalanche spilling on its docks to be distributed for smelting to the coal-rich neighboring area. To this day, the flow continues.
Oil soon paired with ore to push Cleveland ahead. For ten years after Edwin L. Drake brought in the nation’s first great oil field in northwestern Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, the nearest large city to the wells, held first place as a refining center. Then Cleveland’s superior transportation facilities—a water route and two competing railroad connections with the East against Pittsburgh’s one—made the city on the lake the oil capital of the country.