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Places "It's going to be bigger than Chicago!" -- great American cities that never happened

Dan

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Not too long ago, I was reading an excerpt from some old-timey book, which described the advantages and wonders of a place that was sure to form the heart of one of the great metropolises of the Great Lakes region: Sandusky, Ohio. Sandusky was supposed to be what Toledo is today, but ... something happened. Or, maybe, it just wasn't in the right spot to become Toledo It got me thinking about these little towns that, according to the hype of the time, were supposed to be the next great American cities. A few places that come to mind:

Cairo, Illinois. We've talked a lot about Cairo on Cyburbia. The following is a quote from Clark E. Carr in The Illini: The Story of the Prairies (1912):

Chicago will be a great city, but Cairo will be the great city. Look at her position, on the great Father of Waters, at its confluence with the Ohio! Think of the trade and commerce that is already coming up the Mississippi from New Orleans and all the parts of the south. Think of all that comes down the Ohio from Pittsburg, Cincinnati, and Louisville, and the other cities, besides what comes from the Tennessee and Cumberland. Think of all that will come down from the upper Mississippi and the Missouri, and all this to meet at Cairo! It will be the largest city on this continent; and the time is sure to come when Cairo will be the largest city in the world.

cairo.jpg

From A History of the City of Caro, Illinois (1910)

The time has probably passed for making Cairo a great or a relatively large city. Time and opportunities for cities, like time and opportunities for individuals, pass by. Large cities absorb, not to say exhaust, the population of large districts of country and therefore large cities are found only at considerable distances apart. There are too many large cities, comparatively, near us now to justify any hope that Cairo will ever attain to anything like what was expected of it half a century ago. All that can be hoped for now is a wholesome steady growth, which will assure a population and business that can give it something of a commanding place among the more important cities of the valley of the Mississippi.

Even that didn't happen.

We know that confluences by themselves aren't always good natural break-in-bulk points. There's no fall line by Cairo to help, either. Cairo was swampy, humid, and subject to massive flooding to the point where it needed the protection of high levees on all sides, as if it was a walled medieval town. (Pittsburgh succeeded because it was at a sweet spot of proximity to fuel, iron ore, and big Eastern markets.) Cairo was destined to fade into oblivion, even if it wasn't beset by 1960s-style big city race riots deep into the 1970s.

Ashtabula, Ohio. Close to the coal fields of PA and WV, accessible to the Lake Superior iron ore ranges, and a big natural harbor -- check, check, check. Ashtabula had all same advantages of Cleveland, but it sat just a little bit farther to the east. The Ohio & Erie Canal came to Cleveland long before the idea of a canal to connect Pittsburgh and Ashtabula even came to mind. The rest is history.

Sodus, New York. It seemed like the belief among geographers in the early- to-mid 1800s was that great cities will always emerge around natural harbors. Sodus Bay is a large natural harbor, and it was a straight shot south to the coal fields of Pennsylvania. The thinking was that canals or railroads would move coal between Pennsylvania and Sodus Bay, and soon enough, a boomtown rivaling Buffalo or Rochester would emerge. Nope.

What other dots on the map were once hyped up as potential rivals to Chicago, St. Louis, or Cincinnati, but never quite made it?
 

mendelman

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Galena, IL - By 1828, the population was estimated at 10,000, rivaling the population of Chicago at the time. (source: Wikipedia) The first major railroad out of Chicago headed toward Galena because of the City's importance in the early 1800s. But, as we all know, Galena's hope for primacy did not last. Though much of the 20th century, it was a sleepy little back water and the comparative poverty of the community actually helped preserve much of the early 19th century commercial and residential architecture.

Now it's a tourist town for small town feel, everyday architectural history and President Grant's adult home.
 
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Dan

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Galena is a good one.

Although this doesn't meet my "just a dot on the map today" criteria, the criteria for predicting what was going to be the world's penultimate city in A Presentation of Causes Tending to Fix the Position of the Future Great City of the World in the Central Plains of North America Showing That The Center of the World's Commerce Now Represented by the City of London is Moving Westward to the CIty of New York and Thence Within One Hundred Years to the Best Position on the Great Lakes (yes, that's really the title) by Jessup W. Scott in 1868 is ... well, by today's standards, he'd be more than cancelled, but drawn and quartered in the court of public opinion, and deservedly so. Seriously. Right off the bat, Scott starts the second paragraph with ...

The earliest great cities were built by a race of men inferior to our own, to-wit: the Mongolian Chinese.

His head would assplode if he saw a modern Chinese city, and compared it to the booming metropolises of "Evansville, Paducah, Cairo, Memphis, St. Louis, Alton, Quincey, Keokuk, Dubuque, Davanport, etc. " There's other gems about "inferior races", how they're better suited to hot climates, and how the "best race" will thrive in the more temperate and cooler parts of North America. FFS.

Anyhow, Scott makes this conclusion.

What proportion of the two hundred and thirty millions will prefer to transact business with each other, by crossing the mountains toe-ether, carrying with them the articles to be exchanged, to New York, rather than to meet each other, at the most conveniently located city, in their midst =? The productions of these two hundred and thirty millions, intended for exchange with each other, will meet at the most convenient point, central in time and cost, to their homes and exchangeable products. Where will thai point be? Chicago and Toledo are believed to be the true claimants for this high destiny. Which of these has the best, position to become the ultimate great city? In estimating the relative claims of these two young cities to have the greater future. concession is made to the present popular opinion which would. without doubt, decide in favor of the larger city. I believe Toledo occupies a better position to become the ultimate city, time's noblest offspring.​

Also ...

It had. as rivals, on all sides, towns of better reputation and larger size. It had to overcome, under these and other disadvantages, the rivaly, one after another, lirst of its nearest neighbors, and. afterwards, of itsi more remote. These rivals. Perrysburg, Staumee, Monroe, Adrian, and Sandusky City, were, comparatively, old and established places of business before Toledo existed. Now. and hereafter, it has for reputed rivals, Detroit. Cleveland, Cincinnati and Chicago. Under all these disadvantages, it has increased, in the aggregate of the thirty-eight years, over 12 per cent, annually. There appears to be no reason to expect a lower per centage of increase for many years. hereafter.

tl;dr: New York? London? Tokyo? Los Angeles? Paris? Shanghai? Singapore? Moscow? Pshaw. They're mere provincial has-beens, settlements, barely hamlets, compared to the dominance, wealth, and influence wielded by the mighty megalopolis of Toledo, Ohio.
 

TOFB

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Galena, IL - By 1828, the population was estimated at 10,000, rivaling the population of Chicago at the time. (source: Wikipedia) The first major railroad out of Chicago headed toward Galena because of the City's importance in the early 1800s. But, as we all know, Galena's hope for primacy did not last. Though much of the 20th century, it was a sleepy little back water and the comparative poverty of the community actually helped preserve much of the early 19th century commercial and residential architecture.

Now it's a tourist town for small town feel, everyday architectural history and President Grant's adult home.
Good thread. This isn't the whole scene, and it is at night, but this is Main Street in Galena. I always think of this when I am in Galena (not often; have plenty of trinkets) Galena

A town I know called Davenport and the Quad Cities could of replaced St. Louis as the biggest gateway to the west, but STL metro is 8-9 times larger. Don't really know the full reasoning but I assume the proximity to both the Illinois and Missouri Rivers play into that.

I agree with Dan's assessment of Cairo, but don't forget racism. Strolling the town on Google Street View is incredibly depressing.
 

luckless pedestrian

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Salem, Massachusetts - supposed to be Boston but it didn't work out that way

Bangor was supposed to be bigger than Portland, Maine but the lumber industry fail took care of that
 

mendelman

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Good thread. This isn't the whole scene, and it is at night, but this is Main Street in Galena. I always think of this when I am in Galena (not often; have plenty of trinkets) Galena


 

DVD

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Arizona cities going wrong, Phoenix was never supposed to be the big city. It was basically agriculture for the area. Wickenburg was supposed to be the big city. Prescott was supposed to be the capital. It was for a short time, but Indian raiding ruined that idea.
 

Dan

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Arizona cities going wrong, Phoenix was never supposed to be the big city. It was basically agriculture for the area. Wickenburg was supposed to be the big city. Prescott was supposed to be the capital. It was for a short time, but Indian raiding ruined that idea.

I've read about the same phenomenon in other states.

Reno or Carson City was supposed to be the big city in Nevada, not Las Vegas.

Port Angeles or Tacoma was supposed to be the big city in Washington, not Seattle.

Silver City or Las Vegas was supposed to be the second largest city in New Mexico, not Las Cruces.

Waco was supposed to be bigger than Dallas.
 

bureaucrat#3

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Henry Ford tried to buy an unfinished dam and leftover munitions factory from WWI in Muscle Shoals, AL, (population less than 15,000). He planned to repurpose the factories to make fertilizer. He said he would make the Shoals the "Detroit of the south" and would employ 1,000,000 workers. His utopian city would be 75 miles wide with everyone owning large lots and mini-farms. He offered $5 million of someone else's money for property worth $50-100 million. House approved the sale, it never made it to a vote in the Senate due to one senator realizing how bad a deal it would be.

Land speculation blew up. People started buying tracts and installing curbing, sidewalks and street lights in the middle of cotton fields. Eventually, Ford moved on from the project, blamed Wall Street and "International Jews", and Muscle Shoals and Wilson Dam sat largely empty until FDR, the New Deal and the TVA in the 30s. Apparently, there is still a Ford district in city and some of the streets are named after Detroit streets and landmarks. I read a story once where a guy said it was one of the only places you could go quail hunting using sidewalks.

Muscle Shoals would later become somewhat famous for the Shoals Sound, Fame Studio, and the Swampers, session musicians for ton of records in the 1970s and 80s.

https://urbanutopias.net/2019/02/01/henry-ford-muscle-shoals/
 

Dan

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Henry Ford tried to buy an unfinished dam and leftover munitions factory from WWI in Muscle Shoals, AL, ...

That's another good one. Muscle Shoals looks like a nondescript Southern city on the surface, but when I've looked at its street grid, it screams interwar speculation. There's a very large portion of the city laid out in rectangular blocks, and the scarcity of loop-and-lollypop subdivisions tells me there's still a lot of filling up to be done in the old grid.

(A similar phenomenon happened in Buffalo and its suburbs, where speculators laid out hundreds of blocks between the mid 1800s and late 1920s, and it wasn't until the 1960s that the bulk of those areas either approached buildout or were vacated. Erie County is still plagued with miles of paper streets, some lined by county-owned lots taken for tax arrears during the Great Depression, others with vacant lots with such scattered ownership they're nearly impossible to assemble.)

This sidewalk has to be original. The driveway crossing it tells me planning regulations are just basic, with no attention to details.

Sidewalk in a field. And another.

Cosnidering the "small developer's kids names" theme, this is probably a replat. They didn't maintain consistency of the street names on the east side of road, but I can understand why it might be difficult to market new houses on Government Boulevard.

Meh.

More meh. Muscle Shoals likes its continuous curb cuts.

Not considering its fantastic music heritage, there seems to be an overwhelming sense of mediocrity to Muscle Shoals. It has an unusually high concentration of Dollar General stores, payday and title lenders, pawn shops, auto part stores, and fast food joints, which tells me the demographics are solidly blue collar lower middle class, despite the newer housing stock. Nothing wrong with that on the surface -- I'm sure its residents are friendly and all -- but my experience has been that municipalities with lower middle end demographic and housing monocultures don't age well. Florence seems like a cute little town, though.
 

Maister

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Cosnidering the "small developer's kids names" theme, this is probably a replat. They didn't maintain consistency of the street names on the east side of road, but I can understand why it might be difficult to market new houses on Government Boulevard.
This is an example of what I call "forensic planning." Where one makes educated guesses about how things developed based on certain clues left in the built environment. Kinda like a forensic anthropologist or a forensic pathologist.

Oh, if these walls could talk, the stories they'd tell....
 

bureaucrat#3

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Not considering its fantastic music heritage, there seems to be an overwhelming sense of mediocrity to Muscle Shoals. It has an unusually high concentration of Dollar General stores, payday and title lenders, pawn shops, auto part stores, and fast food joints, which tells me the demographics are solidly blue collar lower middle class, despite the newer housing stock

Its fairly mediocre. The river is beautiful and there are some nice parks. You were on two lane roads getting to this area up until a couple of years ago. As Huntsville to the east has grown, this area has gotten better but they're still struggling a bit. The architecture of its most famous building (Fame Recording Studio) is not pulling anybody in. You're right that Florence has always been seen as the more upscale community. It has Alabama's only Frank Lloyd Wright house the Rosenbaum House.
 

kjel

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My ex boss used to tell everyone that Newark, NJ was built for 1,000,000 people, but it's population peaked in 1930 at 442K people. It's currently about 300K. Development of the suburbs and redlining post-WW2, white flight, the riots on 1967, I-280, and urban renewal related woes pushed the population down to 273K in 2000.

Oddly enough, the state of NJ does not have any municipality with more than 300K people. The largest cities are Newrark & Jersey City with about equal populations; Paterson, Elizabeth, Edison, Woodbridge, and Lakewood are the only cities with more than 100K.
 

Luca

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All those missed metropolises... An object lesson in the chaos-like complexity of socio-economic systems and, therefore, the dangers of overconfidence in planning (not in the sense of what you fellows do, in the sense of whole-economy planning).

Very interesting thread.
 

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Dan

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All those missed metropolises... An object lesson in the chaos-like complexity of socio-economic systems and, therefore, the dangers of overconfidence in planning (not in the sense of what you fellows do, in the sense of whole-economy planning).

I wonder if the "missed metropolis" phenomenon is mainly an American thing, or if it's also part of the history and folklore in other New World Anglosphere countries. For example, on the American side of the Niagara River in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the prospect of harnessing Niagara Falls for hydropower brought about endless hype about how the Niagara Frontier would soon become a booming, heavy industry-filled megalopolis that was the envy of the world.

Up until then, Niagara Falls, New York was a relatively small village. The Canadian side wasn't much different. Here's a map from 1897:

niagara_1897.jpg

The Canadian side had some advantages over the American side, and it wasn't just the view. There's the Welland Canal, the possibility of two ports on the Great Lakes in what are now Port Colborne and St. Catharines, and a treaty that allowed more water withdrawal for hydropower than the Americans. Canadians viewed their Niagara Falls as the front door or entrance to their (not yet fully independent) country, while Americans saw Niagara Falls as the back door or exit. However, what the Canadians didn't have, as far as I know, was the hype. Nobody seemed to be saying that that the population of the Niagara Peninsula will come to dwarf that of Montreal, or that it would be the premier city of the province and not Toronto.

That's not to say there weren't plans for major settlements that ultimately fizzled out. Consider the fate of Townsend, Ontario. Nobody said Townsend would grow to be a rival to Toronto or Hamilton, though. Was anybody saying that Wndsor is going to be bigger than Toronto, or that Invercargill or Darwin were destined to be great cities?
 

michaelskis

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I am surprised that no one has mentioned Calumet Michigan in the Keweenaw Peninsula.

In 1900 the area had more than 25,000 people and was growing faster than anyone could comprehend, but everything hinged on the mining operations. In 1913 with a union strike in full swing, the miners and their families gathered in the Italian Hall on Christmas Eve when one of the strike breakers leaned into the hall and yelled fire. People fled in panic and it resulted in 73 people, mostly children getting trampled to death because of the lack of fire exits. A few months later, the workers returned to work as the company continued to refuse to negotiate, but the Italian Hall Disaster became the symbolic downturn for the community.

Today the community has less then 700 people left, the mines are closed, and because of that incident we now have several fire code regulations in place to protect people as well as a law that makes it illegal to yell fire in a building when we know that there isn't a fire.
 

Super Amputee Cat

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Toledo was supposed to be the "Future Great City of the West" and for a while it grew substantially It was even bigger than Columbus for a few years. However, it had two serious disadvantages. It was too far east to capitalize on the great late 1800s agricultural markets that Chicago was perfectly located for tapping into, and it was too close to the Michigan state line. By the 1960s, even though it actually moved up many ranks in population through annexation, it was all but landlocked by Michigan and suburbs and almost all sides.
 

HomerJ

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I've read about the same phenomenon in other states.

Reno or Carson City was supposed to be the big city in Nevada, not Las Vegas.

Port Angeles or Tacoma was supposed to be the big city in Washington, not Seattle.

Silver City or Las Vegas was supposed to be the second largest city in New Mexico, not Las Cruces.

Waco was supposed to be bigger than Dallas.

I have to assume it was originally belived Galveston was supposed to be bigger than Houston too...
 

Dan

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Toledo was supposed to be the "Future Great City of the West" and for a while it grew substantially It was even bigger than Columbus for a few years. However, it had two serious disadvantages. It was too far east to capitalize on the great late 1800s agricultural markets that Chicago was perfectly located for tapping into, and it was too close to the Michigan state line. By the 1960s, even though it actually moved up many ranks in population through annexation, it was all but landlocked by Michigan and suburbs and almost all sides.

See my post above. :D

Buffalo, New York also doesn't meet my "speck on the map today" ground rules, but since its founding people were expecting greatness based on its location -- natural harbor at the end of the Great Lakes; equidistant from the natural resources of the Midwest and Appalachia, and the huge markets of the Northeast; and at the mother of all fall lines. Still, during the time the Erie Canal cities were emerging, Rochester was the big kid on the block for a couple of decades. Even after the Erie Canal opened, other Great Lakes cities like Detroit, Milwaukee, and Cleveland would quickly eclipse Buffalo in size and influence. (I didn't say Chicago, because its future was pretty much assured from the start.)

In all the research I've been doing for the Unbuilt Buffalo thread, I have my own theory about why Buffalo never achieved the kind of greatness that so many expected. On the macro scale --

1) It's in the same state as the nation's alpha city. People saw it as more of a distant satellite city to NYC than a freestanding, independent entity. Historically, there have been few locally based large corporations -- with few exceptions, it was outside interests that set up factories and built railroads, not locals. There's also a long history of out-of-town corporations taking over successful homegrown enterprises that reach a certain critical mass. This lead to declining stewardship and interest in Buffalo's overall well-being.

2) Until the Erie Canal came, it was a distant frontier outpost. After the Canal arrived, it became a destination only for a few. For most, it was a way station on the way to somewhere else. In the northern United States, the easiest travel route through the Appalachian Mountains passed through Buffalo -- until the early national highway system and Pennsylvania Railroad were developed. After those other routes were punched through the Appalachians, Buffalo's location became out of the way. Which brings us to ...

3) It's geographically isolated. Locals will claim Buffalo has "the best location in the nation" -- there's some huge percentage of the population of the North American Anglosphere (and Francosphere) within a 500 mile (800 km) radius ofthe city. Draw a circle with a 100 mile (160 km) radius from Niagara Square -- a potential local sphere of influence -- and there's not much. Rochester, Erie, a foreign country, a lot of water, a series of finger-shaped lakes that couldn't easily be bridged, and tens of thousands of square miles of sparsely populated hills and mountains to the south, with few natural resources except natural gas, lumber, and a little bit of oil.

4) The advantages of its fall line -- the Niagara Escarpment -- were easily exported outside the region. Manufacturers didn't need to be next to a mill race, but instead could take advantage of hydropower generated at Niagara Falls. You could place the blame on Nikola Tesla and others who promoted alternating current, which could be transmitted over great distances. What did Buffalo get out of this? A short-lived stint as the "electric city", and hundreds of miles of ultra-high voltage transmission lines to further mar the landscape and divide neighborhoods.

One of Buffalo's little-known unbuilt projects was a plan by the New York Central Railroad in the late 1910s to split their famous four-track Water Level Route mainline at Batavia, rebuild the old "Peanut Line" from there to Tonawanda, and route limited trains to Detroit and Chicago through Southern Ontario via Grand Island, on two massive new bridges over the Niagara River. The NYCRR bought the right-of-way, designed the bridges, and started preliminary improvements on the right-of-way before cancelling the project several years later. Still, the NYCRR was willing to spend millions to shave a couple of hours off NYC-to-Chicago trains, while greatly reducing passenger service to Buffalo in the process.

In the end, the economic forces that shaped Buffalo came largely from outside, rather than from within. Buffalo had far less control over its own destiny, compared to its peers. Buffalo's location was perfect for exploitation by outside interests, but not so much for fostering homegrown enterprises. The combinaton of a "perfect" location with geographic isolation ultimately led to a dysfunctional island economy. The region's exploitation by outsiders also created numerous micro-scale impacts (rampant land speculation, railroad mainlines and yards dicing the city into tens of disconnected "iron islands", cutting off residents from the waterfront, dependence on heavy industry that doesn't scale down, massive pollution) that, in my opinion, will continue to stunt growth in the region for a couple more centuries.
 
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