Cincinnati was truly a happening place 150 years ago.
In 1853, Cincinnati was the United States' sixth-largest city. It gave birth to its fire department and public library while reigning as the brewing, manufacturing and publishing capital of the Midwest.
True to its nickname of Porkopolis, Cincinnati - not Chicago, then just a lakefront town - could honestly lay claim to the title of hog butcher for the world.
"Cincinnati was an amazing place in 1853," said John Fleischman, author of Free & Public, a chronicle of the 150-year history of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
Downtown Cincinnati in 1850, showing Main Street between Fourth and Fifth, was renowned for its beauty.
(Enquirer file photos)
"It's contemporary equivalent would be Silicon Valley or the bio-med land around Boston."
Today, however, Cincinnati is bogged down by a strange sense of inertia.
Great progress has come to a standstill. The city seems demoralized, unable to shake off the ill effects of the riots of 2001 while struggling to keep downtown alive and neighborhoods vibrant.
That's Cincinnati in 2003.
Cincinnati in 1853 was a different story, a budding metropolis with citizens dedicated to making the common good even better.
View of downtown taken in 1866, with Mount Adams visible in the distance. Visitors were astounded by the town's rapid development.
The city was feeling flush in 1853. It had survived the cholera epidemic of 1848-49 that claimed 7,500 lives. Cincinnati could lay claim to hosting Ohio's first state fair - in Camp Washington during the fall of 1850. Money was being raised for John A. Roebling to build a suspension bridge across the Ohio. In 1851, the city's candle and soap factories, led by Procter & Gamble, produced goods worth more than $6 million.
By 1853, Cincinnati was already referred to as the Queen City of the West. That was a year before it became immortalized as such in a Longfellow poem.
City of contrasts
Then, as now, it was a city of contrasts and contradictions.
|Mayor||David T. Snelbaker||Charlie Luken|
|Population||115,435 (1850 census)||331,285 (2000 census)|
|Population rank (U.S.) ||6th||54th|
|Findlay Market||$12,612 to build||$74.1 million to rehab|
|Fire department budget ||$78,444||$74.1 million|
|Bridges over Ohio River||0||9|
|Beer brewed (barrels)||350,000||569,000|
Cincinnati was home to both reactionary and progressive forces.
The American Party (or Know-Nothing Party) gained a large following by advocating religious and ethnic hatred that spawned deadly riots in 1853 and 1854.
The abolitionist movement, dedicated to ending slavery, put down deep roots in Cincinnati, the unofficial headquarters of the underground railroad.
At the same time, Cincinnati was constructing lasting monuments to its greatness. In 1853, the city gave birth to institutions and built landmarks that are still with us today.
Cincinnati's Fire Department. The nation's first professional fire department with paid firefighters and a horse-drawn steam engine for pumping water went to work on April 1, 1853. The department's budget for that first year stood at $78,444. This year, it's $74.1 million.
The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County traces its birth to the passage of a state library law on March 14, 1853, and the realization of its importance by Rufus King II. Books were first loaned for free from a readily accessible central location in 1856. In 2002, the library system circulated 14.4 million items. This gave Cincinnati and Hamilton County the seventh-busiest library system in the nation.
Christian Moerlein quit shoeing horses to brew beer in 1853. He filled and sold 1,000 barrels of beer that year. By 1894, he had the largest brewery in Ohio and the 13th largest in the nation, annually producing 500,000 barrels of beer for thirsty Cincinnatians and their 2,000 saloons, as well as for export to New Orleans, the Caribbean and Central and South America. A beer bearing his name and an approximation of his most popular recipe is owned by the Westwood-based Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewing Co. and brewed in Frederick, Md. In 2002, five varieties of Christian Moerlein beer accounted for 30,000 barrels of brew sold in 20 states and Washington, D.C.
Findlay Market. Although its cornerstone was laid on Oct. 28, 1852, Findlay Market, a gift to the city from James Findlay, was still a work in progress in 1853. America's first market house with a cast-iron frame would be completed and opened in 1855. Construction took so long because the city's engineer, Alfred West Gilbert, fought with contractors over their shoddy work. Unlike government officials responsible for building Paul Brown Stadium nearly 150 years later, Gilbert refused to allow any cost overruns. Findlay Market cost the city $12,612.66. Today, the historic Over-the-Rhine landmark is undergoing an oft-delayed renovation to the tune of $12.5 million.
George B. "Boss" Cox. The undisputed boss of Cincinnati politics from 1884 until his death in 1916 was born in 1853 in a West End slum. The corrupt Republican government he ran - not out of City Hall, but from an Over-the-Rhine beer hall that still stands, boarded up, on Vine Street - led to a clean government campaign whose remnants still determine how Cincinnati governs itself.
"In 1853, people with talent, brains and money - or no money and lots of ambition - were already here or were heading here," John Fleischman noted.
"Cincinnati was a place where anything was possible."
One hundred and 50 years ago, Cincinnati had the means, motive and opportunity for greatness. As a transportation hub, thanks to rivers and roads, it linked fertile farmlands with goods manufactured in the city. The people in the city also made a difference. Cincinnati had a large, growing and willing workforce with a significant number of individuals fueled by personal ambition as well as the desire to improve the lot of the entire city.
In the 1850 census, only five U.S. cities - New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston and New Orleans, in that order - had more people than Cincinnati. The Queen City's population was 115,435 and growing. At the time, Cincinnati was the most densely populated city in the nation, 25,000 per square mile.
The 2000 census set Cincinnati's population at 331,285, making it the 54th-largest city in America.
By the middle of the 19th century, the world was taking note of Cincinnati. Horace Greeley wrote: "Cincinnati is destined to become the focus and mart for the greatest circle of manufacturing thrift on this continent."
Period newspapers and magazines also featured articles and illustrations on the Queen City. So said Barbara Gargiulo. She's the co-author of the upcoming Cincinnati Fire Stations, a firehouse-by-firehouse history marking the fire department's sesquicentennial.
"Cincinnati was the place to be in the 1850s," she said. "The newspapers and magazines would not have devoted the space and those illustrations to the town unless it was a thriving, bustling place. And, it was so because you had that huge German population coming in."
Cincinnatians of German descent made up 5 percent of the population in 1830. By 1850, they accounted for 27 percent.
These immigrants were dominated by exiled freedom fighters. They had lost the 1848 revolution that tried to form a united Germany.
"Their number included men of letters, professionals, professors, book publishers," said Timothy J. Holian, author of Over the Barrel, the encyclopedic two-volume history of brewing in Cincinnati.
"They were more than just a bunch of beer-drinking immigrants. They were here to make good. And, when they did, they made sure that they gave something back to the community."
Those gifts to the community ranged from building lasting city institutions to casting votes in favor of public education.
"German-Americans at this time strongly supported public schools and the library," said Don Heinrich Tolzmann, director of German American Studies at the University of Cincinnati.
"Back in Germany, these cultural institutions were traditionally supported by the state and taxation. They were certainly going to carry on this Old World tradition in the New World."
Lovers of sausage, beer
Attracted by the opportunities for advancement in Cincinnati, the Germans brought with them several loves. Freedom. Singing societies. A sense of order. Eating sausages. Drinking beer.
The latter two loves, sausages and beer, helped turn Cincinnati into Porkopolis (300,000 hogs were slaughtered annually in town during the 1850s) and a center for brewing.
The city's 22 breweries produced 350,000 barrels of beer in 1853. By century's end, the city's brewed output stood at 1.3 million barrels. Today, the city's Samuel Adams Brewery, microbrewers (BarrelHouse and Rock Bottom) and brewpubs (Jump Cafe, Teller's and Bella) produce 569,000 barrels a year.
This mix of culture and commerce attracted adventurers and storytellers.
Composer Stephen Foster and novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe had come and gone by 1853.
Both left town by 1850. Mark Twain would show up in the fall of 1856 for a six-month stay. But all three would incorporate into their work what they saw and heard during their time in Cincinnati.
Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home" was published in 1853. The song was inspired by a visit he made to Kentucky while he worked as a bookkeeper for his brother in Cincinnati from 1846 to 1850.
Stowe was the daughter and the wife of abolitionists. She lived in Cincinnati from 1832 to 1850. At the time, Cincinnati was the unofficial headquarters of the underground railroad and one of the hotbeds of the movement to abolish slavery. Stowe drew on the tales she heard about runaway slaves and her experiences in the abolitionist movement to write Uncle Tom's Cabin.
First published in book form in 1852, the novel inspired by scenes from Cincinnati was the nation's best-seller of 1853. It sold a then-unheard-of 300,000 copies.
That same year, Miles Greenwood and Rufus King II stood poised to make history in Cincinnati and give something back to the community.
Greenwood would found the city's fire department out of his own misfortune and from his private fortune.
King would create one of the nation's busiest library systems from a single sentence in a state law.
Greenwood's iron works burned to the ground in 1852. The city's volunteer firefighters - often poorly trained and unruly - could not save it. This was a sharp slap in the face for Greenwood. He was one of the volunteers' biggest supporters. And he had been volunteer fireman for 20 years.
After rebuilding his business, and becoming a staunch supporter of building Findlay Market's framework out of iron, Greenwood went on to assemble the city's first professional fire department and the nation's first paid department with a horse-drawn steam engine pumper.
Greenwood donated $15,000 and raised another $15,000 to get the fire department started. Then, he went to the city's 33 councilman and proposed that they come up with the rest of the department's budget.
Council - in a rare show of wisdom - approved his proposal and named Greenwood the city's first fire chief.
He received an annual salary of $1,000. To avoid any conflict of interest, he hired someone to take his place at his iron works and donated his fire chief's salary to the Ohio Mechanics Institute. That money would soon come in handy.
Three years later, the institute became the site of the library's first public reading room, turning Rufus King's dream into a reality.
"That was start of the free and public library system as we know it in Cincinnati," Fleischman said.
Creating the city's library system was just one of King's civic accomplishments. He either founded, funded or furthered the causes of the city's law library, the University of Cincinnati, the Art Museum, the Art Academy and the May Festival.
Rufus King and Miles Greenwood could teach a seminar on leadership in Cincinnati in 2003.
They set goals, stayed focused and reached their destination. They formed a public and private partnership. They worked first with private donors and planners before taking their plans to city officials.
"Back then, people did not look first to the government to solve their problems," said Xavier University political scientist Gene Beaupre.
"They realized these solutions are not a one-legged stool. They need legs from the community and from the government. They need a civic investment, a civic republicanism."
Greenwood and King led with a united front. Both men's projects were supported by the city's German community.
"This was the Yankees (King was Harvard-educated, Greenwood was born in New Jersey) working with the Germans," Fleischman said.
Yankee ingenuity meshed with the German sense of order and devotion to public service.
Such devotion is sadly in short supply today.
"As a society, we're not as community oriented today as we were 150 years ago," Beaupre said.
"Any project for the public good - whether it's enforcing laws, forming a fire department or establishing a library system - requires a commitment to a community spirit. And not just in City Hall."
That commitment made Cincinnati a happening place in 1853.
A renewed sense of community spirit could help take the Queen City to new heights in 2003.
Cliff Radel, a West Side native, writes about the people, places and things that define his hometown. E-mail email@example.com.
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