- 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 two great industries attracted manufacturers of other products. New railroads were built to transport raw materials and finished products. Thousands of foreigners flocked in to fill the ever-increasing number of jobs. Cleveland grew—to 160,000 in 1880, to 380,000 in 1900. In the Twentieth Century Cleveland spurted to fifth place among American cities, but by 1950 a newcomer, Los Angeles, and an old stalwart in the East, Baltimore, had forced it back to seventh place. Yet with almost a million inhabitants, fine transportation facilities that will become even better with the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and a solid base of diversified industry, Cleveland should hold its high relative position indefinitely.
Cleveland had natural advantages, but it also had, to a remarkable degree, another asset often ignored when attempts are made to appraise the forces that raise one city above another. Cleveland had bold, imaginative, and highly successful enterprisers. Samuel L. Mather and Stephen V. Harkness in iron and steel; Daniel P. Rhodes and his son-in-law, Mark Hanna, in coal, ore, and lake shipping; John D. Rockefeller and Henry M. Flagler in oil—to these men, one could contend, Cleveland owes as much as it owes to all the other factors in its expansion.
The same case can be made for the last of our seven cities, St. Paul. When St. Paul became the capital of the newly created Minnesota Territory in 1849, it was a frontier village with fewer than a thousand inhabitants, many of whom were French Canadians and half-breeds. After ten years St. Paul counted 10,000 inhabitants, most of them brought up the Mississippi by wood-burning side-wheelers which returned downriver loaded with furs and buffalo robes from the Indian country to the north and west.
By this time, the city had given up its early name, Pig’s Eye—the change is understandable—and was beginning to ship its grain to the East.
Among the immigrants, Swedes and Germans and Irishmen, who poured in to make St. Paul large and powerful, one would not have particularly noticed James Jerome Hill. All that marked this little fellow of eighteen was a blind eye, put out by an arrow in his native Ontario, and a yen to continue west, to the Pacific, with the next brigade of trappers. Because no brigade left soon after his arrival, Jim Hill had to wait. He got a job, labeling the flour bags aforesaid, and St. Paul gained a maker of cities, who transformed the little settlement into a great trading center. Here was a railroad builder not ashamed to doff his fine coat and spell the workmen digging his own railroad, a man of choler who would, according to his whim, put a town on the railroad or not, in the manner of the Lord giving or taking away. Acquiring control of the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad in the 1870’s, Hill expanded it into the Great Northern, extended its lines, and induced many thousands of ambitious men from Europe and the older states of the East to settle in the territory it served. The Northwest prospered, the Great Northern prospered, St. Paul prospered. By 1900 the village of 1850 had became a city of 163,000; fifty years later it had almost doubled in size. To credit this result to James J. Hill alone would be the grossest kind of oversimplification, yet one can easily imagine slower growth, and a smaller city today, had chance led the well-named Empire Builder to some other place of residence.
One certain deduction can be made from this cursory survey of what has happened to seven cities of the interior United States in the last hundred years. Of all the factors which contribute to growth, the greatest is industry. But industry has brought blight as well as wealth. Look at the attractive, almost bucolic aspect of the cities shown in the old lithographs. Discount the pictures, if you please, on the score that they were made to sell, and that the buyers wanted realism no more than the subject of a portrait photograph desires it. The old prints still represent pleasanter surroundings than we live in today. But not, perhaps, pleasanter surroundings than we might enjoy if we only wanted them badly enough to zone our cities properly and keep them as clean and attractive as they once dreamt of being, in the fresh youth of the Middle Border.