Skip to main content

Cities Of The Middle Border

July 2024
12min read

Some became great, others stayed as they were-- and their story tells of the rise of the Midwest

One hundred and fifty years ago the story of America was a story of the open country—of rural people, living for the most part in villages or on farms. A great part of the country had not even been explored, and huge sections of it did not belong to the United States. By 1830, although the number of Americans living west of the Alleghenies was last approaching the number east of them, many intelligent men seriously believed that it would take anywhere from 500 to 2,000 years to settle and develop the country.

Today, in contrast, the story of America has become very largely a story of the city. Of all the changes that have come to America, one of the most striking has been the country’s amazing urbanization. A few generations ago the average American was a farmer; today he is a city dweller.

At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore were the only cities in the United States with white populations of more than 10,000. When the 1950 census was taken, 484 cities had passed the 25,000 mark, and within their limits lived 41 percent of the entire population.

Nowhere has the change been more dramatic than along what used to be called the Middle Border—the great Middle West, an open land of frontier communities and small towns only a century ago, today a thickly settled, highly industrialized area of thriving cities that have burgeoned far beyond anything imaginable in 1856.

The enormous difference can be seen, visually, in such exhibits as the set of contrasting lithographs and photographs recently arranged by the Chicago Historical Society. But while the visual disparity is evident, what is not so clear is the reason behind the cities’ changing faces.

What happened, out on the Middle Border, to make some of these cities double, treble, or quadruple their populations in so short a time? Why should one city grow so much faster than another? Why should St. Paul, Minnesota, have a population of 300,000 today while Davenport, Iowa, has 75,000—when both were approximately the same size a hundred years ago?

We start with Galena, Illinois, not because the town is typical, but because it is not. Almost alone among middle western cities, Galena has lost population over the last hundred years. In 1856 it had 10,000 inhabitants; today it has fewer than 5,000.


As anyone who knows Latin could guess, lead made Galena. As early as 1816, when the first rank of advancing settlers was still hundreds of miles to the south and east, miners were taking lead from the hills in which Galena nestles. Production increased steadily until 1845, when the region accounted for 54,500,000 pounds of the 65,000,000 pounds of lead mined in the entire country. Steamboats regularly poked their way through the narrow Fever River to the town’s busy wharves, and the inhabitants built solid, comfortable homes, churches, and public buildings on the sides and crests of the hills. It is significant that the first railroad to be built out of Chicago was named the Galena and Chicago Union (though it never managed to get to Galena), while the Galena Branch of the Illinois Central, as originally conceived, was considered of no less importance than the Chicago connection. A Harper’s Magazine reporter, visiting Galena in 1857, was awed, not only by the rush of trains and steamers, and by the churches and schools, but also by the “thousands of tons” of zinc and copper ore, dug up in the course of lead mining but simply abandoned for want of coal to smelt them. “Galena will not go backward,” reported Harper’s.

But lead unmade Galena. By 1845, the miners had just about exhausted the easily accessible, high-yield deposits. Costs rose, production dropped. For a decade the distribution of lumber and merchandise more than made up for the loss of revenue from mining, but the railroad, which everyone expected to be a boon, took away more business than it brought. Miners drifted away to California and Nevada. The Panic of 1857 hit hard. In the depression that followed, Galena slipped from her place as the metropolis of northwestern Illinois to the undistinguished status of a county seat. Her citizens have made repeated efforts to resuscitate the little city, but today its principal asset is the aura of the past that makes it a delight to artists, antiquarians, and tourists.

In some ways the story of Dubuque parallels that of Galena. Iowa too had its lead deposits, and Dubuque stood at their center. And when mining shrank in importance, wholesale merchandising made up the losses as it did in Galena. But here the similarity ends. Dubuque—or rather the eastern shore of the Mississippi opposite the town—was the terminus of the Illinois Central; Galena was only a station near the end of the line. Settlers were swarming into Iowa’s fertile prairies; Dubuque was their natural place of supply. Nathaniel H. Parker, the author of a contemporary gazetteer, Iowa As It Is in 1856 , asserted that Dubuque, “the present terminus of two important railroads, has recently become a place of great commercial importance.” In that year 85,045 people registered in Dubuque hotels.

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.”


“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:

“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.

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.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.