On my recent visit to southwest Ohio, this is what struck me about the geography and history of Cincinnati, Queen City of the West:
1. After the American Revolution, Cincinnati was the first boom town west of the Alleghenies — really, the archetypal western boom town in the new republic. Thriving during the first half of the 19th century, Cincinnati was the 8th largest city in the U.S. by the 1830 census, the first time a city in the West/Midwest made it into the top ten. In both the 1840 and 1850 censuses, it was America’s 6th largest city. In the years preceding the Civil War, its population growth slowed dramatically. In the 1860 census, St. Louis (8th) and Chicago (9th) were catching up to Cincinnati (which had dropped to 7th) as the three great western cities. What Cincinnati was in the first half of the 19th century, Chicago became in the second half: the western boom town.
2. Geographically, Cincinnati is defined not just by the Ohio River, but by the junction of the Ohio with the Licking River from Kentucky and the land between the Great Miami and Little Miami rivers in Ohio. The Miami connected via canals to Lake Erie and the Great Lakes watershed. Thus, once established, Cincinnati was bound to be a major entrepot on the frontier “interstate” river system, dominating western traffic on the Ohio and southern traffic on the Mississippi down to New Orleans.
3. Speaking of the Great Miami River just west of Cincinnati, I note that it’s confluence with the Ohio became an important benchmark. Congress set the western boundary of Ohio along an imaginary line running due north from the mouth of the Great Miami River.
4. One in four steamboats used on the great interior interstate river system was built in Cincinnati.
5. In addition to being a major center of the Underground Railroad, Cincinnati would play a major naval role in the Civil War.