New Gateway Cities
New Gateway Cities
The Role of the City. As Americans moved westward, new town sites fueled by land speculation appeared on the nation’s map. A few of them became what were later called “gateway cities”—centers of commerce where manufactured goods flowed one way (often west or north) and raw materials and agricultural products flowed the other. These urban areas tied the West to the Atlantic market. With Western fields, forests, plains, and deserts at one end and New York and other Eastern ports on the other, the gateway cities brought the two sections of the country together in a vast economic network. New York City evolved into the main center of transcontinental commerce in the nineteenth century. By
1860 New York had one million residents and functioned as the country’s foremost port. It likewise served as the center of finance for many Western ventures. New York financiers, and similar-minded developers located in Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore, directed much of the economic development of the West.
New Orleans. In the American West various cities dominated the region at different times. Once established, these centers of commerce were difficult to displace, but in the first half of the nineteenth century there always seemed to be a competitive city growing just around the corner. New Orleans originally served as a depot for French furs and deerskins. Located at the mouth of the Mississippi River, it soon expanded into a booming center of trade for pelts, cotton, and grain. New Orleans continued to grow, and by 1860 it was the only Southern city to reach any significant size.
Cincinnati . In the Northeast, Buffalo, sitting astride one end of the Erie Canal, and Pittsburgh, at the head of the Ohio River, functioned as meeting places between the East coast and the Trans-Appalachian West. Soon Cincinnati, Ohio, emerged as the great urban area of the Midwest; it held twice the population of any other city in the region in 1820. As a river city, and later as a center for processing meat (especially hogs), Cincinnati kept growing into an even larger commercial center through the rest of the nineteenth century.
St. Louis. Further west, St. Louis, Missouri, rose to prominence as the center for the fur trade and the growing commerce between the United States and the Hispanic Southwest. St. Louis also became a depot for the flourishing grain trade of the Mississippi River valley. At the confluence of two major rivers, the city emerged as a thriving hub of waterborne transportation. Because of all this trade, St. Louis prospered in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s; it even became an industrial site for iron works in the decade before the Civil War. By 1860 St. Louis had matched Cincinnati in population with 160,000 residents. Today, its famous arch demonstrates the prominence of this gateway city to the West.
Chicago. For all its success, St. Louis was not destined to become the foremost metropolis of the nineteenth-century West. Instead, a small town on the edge of Lake Michigan arose as the dominant nexus of commerce in the region. Chicago, Illinois, lacked easy access to the rivers of the West, so it was far from predetermined
that it would become the second largest city in the nation. Yet Chicago acquired two key resources that left its competitors behind. First, it secured a large influx of capital from the East, thus ensuring heavy and stable investment. Second, Chicago became the major railroad center of the country. Although other gateway cities attracted railroads, none ever matched Chicago. By 1852 two trunk lines reached it from the East. From there the lines fanned out into the West. Increasing numbers of cities, towns, and farms were brought within the long grasp of Chicago.
The Nation’s Second City . Railroads transported heavier commodities such as grains into Chicago, where they were loaded onto ships traveling the Great Lakes. Lighter items went directly east. Manufactured goods returned west, and the city became a wholesale center for the region. Chicago also developed its own industries, such as the making of agricultural machinery. Much of Chicago’s fame and fortune became apparent in the last half of the nineteenth century. Still, it was already clear by 1860 that this was the new gateway city of the West. In 1855 Chicago surpassed St. Louis in the grain trade. As Americans plowed up acre after acre of the prairie, corn and wheat flowed into the city’s new grain elevators. For a time, Chicago also became the center of the Western lumber trade. Timber companies cleared vast stretches of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota forests and shipped the newly cut pines to the southern tip of Lake Michigan. By 1860, 220 million board feet of timber came through Chicago; only after the Civil War did the city lose its dominance in the lumber trade.
Commercial Centers . New York City grew to be the country’s premier metropolis with its capital and culture, and Chicago, with its railroads, grain, timber, and meat, rose to become America’s second largest city by 1890. Even if Chicago became the most famous of the gateway cities, New Orleans, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis all contributed to the settlement of the Trans-Appalachian West. From 1800 to 1860 much of the economic activity that accompanied and fed westward expansion focused on these commercial centers.
William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: Norton, 1992);