Ohio River History
Ohio River Crossing Part of Northwest Territory
The Ohio River Paddlefest basin first served as a crossing point for Native Americans traveling south. It is believed that Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, was the first explorer to reach this spot on the Ohio River as early as 1669. Part of the Northwest Territory that the newly formed United States government received from England at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, Cincinnati became a strategic debarkation point for settlers forging a new life in the wilderness. Congressman John Cleves Symmes of New Jersey purchased from the Continental Congress one million acres of land between the two Miami rivers, and three settlements were platted. In February 1789, John Filson named one of the settlements Losantiville, meaning “the place opposite the Licking [River].” The next year, General Arthur St. Clair, governor of the Northwest Territory, renamed the village Cincinnati in honor of the Roman citizen-soldier Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus and after the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of American Revolutionary army officers. He made Cincinnati the seat of Hamilton County, which he named after Alexander Hamilton, then president general of the Society of Cincinnati.
River Traffic Swells City’s Population
Fort Washington was built in the area in 1789 as a fortification from which action was mounted against warriors of the Ohio tribe, but the military efforts proved unsuccessful until General Anthony Wayne trained an army that defeated the Ohio at Fallen Timbers in 1794, securing the area for settlement. Cincinnati was chartered as a town in 1802 and as a city in 1819. The introduction of the river paddle-wheeler on the Ohio River after the War of 1812 turned Cincinnati into a center of river commerce and trade. The opening of the Miami Canal in 1827 added to the town’s economic growth. William Holmes McGuffey published his Eclectic Readers in Cincinnati in 1836, and eventually 122 million copies were sold. The first mass migration of Germans in 1830 and Irish a decade later swelled Cincinnati’s population to 46,338 people.
The economy continued to boom as the South paid cash for foodstuffs produced in the city, and by 1850 Cincinnati was the pork-packing capital of the world. More than 8,000 steamboats docked at Cincinnati in 1852. Cincinnati merchants protested the cutoff of Southern trade at the outbreak of the Civil War, but federal government contracts and the city’s role as a recruiting and outfitting center for Union soldiers righted the economy. Cincinnati was a major stop on the Underground Railroad, a secret network of cooperation aiding fugitive slaves in reaching sanctuary in the free states or Canada prior to 1861. Cincinnati also served as a center of Copperhead political activity during the Civil War; Copperheads were Northerners sympathetic to the Southern cause. The city’s proximity to the South spread fear of invasion by the Confederate Army, and martial law was decreed in 1862 when raiders led by Edmund Kirby-Smith, a Confederate commander, threatened invasion.
Cincinnati residents played an important role in the Abolitionist cause. James G. Birney, who published the abolitionist newspaper The Philanthropist, and Dr. Lyman Beecher of the Lane Theological Seminary were leading Northern antislavery activists. Dr. Beecher’s daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, lived in Cincinnati from 1832 to 1850 and wrote much of her best seller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there. African Americans have in fact been prominent in Cincinnati’s history since its founding. The city’s first African American church was built in 1809 and the first school in 1825. African Americans voted locally in 1852, 18 years before the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. The first African American to serve on city council was elected in 1931, and two African Americans have served as mayor.
Prosperity Follows End of Civil War
A suspension bridge designed by John R. Roebling connected Ohio and Kentucky upon its completion in 1867. Cincinnati prospered after the Civil War, and, with a population that grew to 200,000 people became the country’s largest city before annexing land to develop communities outside the basin. Cincinnati’s most revered public monument, the Tyler Davidson Fountain, was unveiled in 1871 in the heart of downtown. During this period Cincinnati’s major cultural institutions were founded, including the art museum and art academy, the conservatory of music, the public library, the zoo, and Music Hall. Two of the city’s most cherished traditions also date from this time: the May Festival of choral music at Music Hall and the first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings.
In reaction to the decline of riverboat trade in the 1870s, the city of Cincinnati built its own southern rail line—it was the first and only city to do so—at a cost of $20 million, rushing to complete the project in 1880. The era of boss-rule in the municipal government was introduced in 1884 when newly elected Governor Joseph B. Foraker appointed George Barnsdale Cox, a tavern keeper, to head the Board of Public Affairs. With control of more than 2,000 jobs, Cox and his machine ruled Cincinnati through a bleak period of graft and corruption, which finally came to an end with a nonpartisan reform movement that won election in 1924. The city’s new charter corrected the abuses of the Cox regime.
On the national scene, a political dynasty was established when Cincinnatian William Howard Taft was elected President and then became the only President to be appointed Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Taft’s son, Robert A. Taft, was elected to three Senate terms; and his grandson, Robert Taft, Jr., was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
City Retains Vitality in Twentieth Century
Cincinnati weathered the Great Depression better than most American cities of its size, largely because of a resurgence of inexpensive river trade. The rejuvenation of downtown began in the 1920s and continued into the next decade with the construction of Union Terminal, the post office, and a large Bell Telephone building. The flood of 1937 was one of the worst in the nation’s history, resulting in the building of protective flood walls. After World War II, Cincinnati unveiled a master plan for urban renewal that resulted in modernization of the inner city. Riverfront Stadium and the Coliseum were completed in the 1970s, as the Cincinnati Reds baseball team emerged as one of the dominant teams of the decade. Tragedy struck the Coliseum in December 1981 when eleven people were killed in a mass panic prior to The Who rock and roll concert. In 1989, the two-hundredth anniversary of the city’s founding, much attention was focused on the city’s Year 2000 plan, which involved further revitalization.
The completion of several major new development projects enhance the city as it enters the early years of the new millennium. Cincinnati’s beloved Bengals and Reds teams both have new, state-of-the-art homes: Paul Brown Stadium, opened in 2000, and the Great American Ball Park, opened in 2003, respectively. Two new museums have opened: the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in 2003, and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in 2004. The Banks is a new, developing 24-hour urban neighborhood of restaurants, clubs, offices, and homes with sweeping skyline views, along the city’s riverfront. Cincinnati has received such accolades as “Most Liveable City,” Partners for Livable Communities, April 2004; number five U.S. arts destination, American Style Magazine, Summer 2004; and inclusion in the top 10 “Cities that Rock,” Esquire Magazine, April 2004.
Historical Information: Cincinnati Historical Society, Museum Center, Cincinnati Union Terminal, 1301 Western Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45203; telephone (513)287-7030.