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  • Writer's pictureTim Burke

Gilded Age Cincinnati: Modern Cincinnati is Born

Updated: Feb 17, 2020


Cincinnati of 1850 was a city of 115,000 occupying a relatively flat six square mile basin along the Ohio River. It had no Fountain Square, Music Hall or any other public space we would recognize today and its existence was almost solely tied to the river with an economy largely developed around pigs and corn. So here is something to consider; when does the Cincinnati we know and love begin to emerge? When do the boundaries, institutions, and landmarks which define the Queen City today, begin to appear? I would argue the transformation took place between 1870 and 1900, a dynamic era of explosive though chaotic economic growth historians named the Gilded Age. After the Civil War, figures like Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller and JP Morgan began organizing larger business enterprises around a new form of ownership - the corporation. As the cornerstone of the new economy, corporations organized into giant monopolies and trusts wielding enormous political power and huge pools of capital to build the world’s largest economy by 1900. The economic vitality generated by technological innovation and the organizational genius of men like Thomas Edison and the other captains of industry created a national market tied together by a sprawling railroad network and massive manufacturing sector with cities at the center of it all. Industrialization was a catalyst for urban growth fueled by a new wave of immigrants washing over America’s shores to meet the demand for cheap labor by railroads, steel mills and dozens of other new and expanding industries in places like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit and of course Cincinnati.

Cities grew beyond their traditional boundaries creating a new kind of sprawling untamed urban frontier in the closing decades of the 19th century. In 1870 Cincinnati was still a “walking city” of an older age with every corner of its six square miles within easy walking distance. The upper classes lived near its center allowing easy access to work, commercial needs, and entertainment while the poor and working class lived on its periphery near warehouses and factories. By 1900 this pattern of organization which characterized most major American cities (Cincinnati was the sixth largest city in the nation in 1870.) was clearly changing. The upper and middle classes began a long slow migration out of the downtown to new hilltop neighborhoods scattered above the city’s amphitheater like basin. It was becoming a sprawling city of neighborhoods eventually reaching its current 80 square miles by the middle of the next century. While industrialization triggered explosive urban growth it also set the stage for “suburbanization” made possible an by evolving transportation system .


By 1880 a series of annexations had grown it to almost 22 square miles. Expansion was seen as a necessity by city fathers who feared a loss of influence if Cincinnati fell behind other rapidly growing cities in the region. Its economic influence was extended with the building of infrastructure including the greatest engineering feat of mid 19th century Cincinnati, the construction of a suspension bridge across the Ohio River designed by John A. Roebling who went on to international acclaim for designing the Brooklyn Bridge. First proposed by Roebling in 1847 the bridge was not completed until 1867. Stretching 1,619 feet across the Ohio River this graceful structure, similar in design to its younger cousin in New York City, still carries traffic today. Its completion signaled the beginning of a new era of convenient commercial access to Covington, Newport and other Northern Kentucky cities. Its completion was followed by the L & N bridge in 1872 and the Cincinnati and Southern bridge in 1877, as the first rail bridges crossing the Ohio River anywhere in the vicinity of the city. These major investments in infrastructure breached a major barrier to north – south rail traffic, the Ohio River, extending the city’s commercial reach deep into the South, securing Cincinnati’s importance as a transportation hub.

Building the John Roebling Suspension Bridge

The bridges were just one piece of the new infrastructure breaking down geographic barriers to growth. Steam powered inclines, electric street cars and suburban rail lines all encouraged the growth of hilltop communities previously slowed by the heavily wooded and steep hills to the north, east, and west of the city. The first street railway appeared in 1839. By 1880 the Cincinnati Consolidated rail line operated on 76 miles of track with more than 5000 employees connecting every corner of the downtown basin with its new outer neighborhoods. Between 1880 and 1900 this system converted from slow horse drawn cars to a cable system and finally to electric supplied by overhead cables. In addition to the streetcar system a series of short rail lines that climbed hills directly from the city basin to hilltop communities began to appear in 1871. Known locally as inclines these platforms crawled straight up ultra-short rail links making access to the towering hilltops more convenient. Five inclines were ultimately built, the first by The Cincinnati Incline Plane Company climbing Main Street to Mount Auburn. Later inclines were built accessing Price Hill in 1875, Mount Adams in 1876, Clifton in 1894 from Elm Street, and another to the the western edge of Clifton (Fairview in 1894). As a consequence the growing hilltop communities lost their rural character evolving into thriving neighborhoods with easy access to jobs, shopping and entertainment. In 1870 Price Hill became part of Cincinnati, with Clifton and Avondale annexed in in 1893, Westwood in 1896 and Hyde Park in in 1903. More annexations would follow deep into the 20th century.

The Mount Adams Incline


During the Gilded Age Cincinnati’s population grew from 216,000 to 325,000 an increase of more than 40% living in housing that averaged nine occupants per structure according to the 1890 census. Many Cincinnatians living in the downtown basin resided in ethnic enclaves, a pattern found in most large American cities of this era. African–Americans found themselves sentenced to live in areas east of Broadway around Sixth and Seventh Street, and in smaller neighborhoods around West Fifth and Sixth Streets by an insidious commitment to segregation. Later the “Great Migration” of African-Americans out of the South near the end of the 19th century significantly boosted the populations of these neighborhoods and of the West End. The East End was heavily populated by the Irish, Italians and white Southerners who migrated north after the Civil War. Italians, among the city’s newest immigrants, also settled in a smaller enclave in the West End and several outlying neighborhoods like Fairmount. There were two notable Jewish neighborhoods in the Mohawk-Brighton area and the Over-The -Rhine, primarily from German states though increasingly joined by new immigrants from Poland, Russia and other Eastern European states. The ethnic German population was spread throughout the city with the largest concentration in the Over-The-Rhine. The 1890 census listed 49,415 German immigrants living in Cincinnati. When their children and grandchildren are added to this figure they constituted a significant cultural influence which included five German language daily newspapers as well as several news weeklies. A trickle of Germans had begun arriving in the late 1830’s exploding into torrent of immigrants by the late 1840’s, forever casting Cincinnati as a “German city”.

Fifth Street circa 1900 with Rookwood Pottery atop Mt. Adams to the left of the Mt. Adams Incline and the Lookout House to the right of the incline

Devastating flooding by the Ohio River in 1883 and 1884 began a migration of business away from the banks of the river to higher ground between Fourth and Sixth Streets, an area increasingly viewed as the heart of Cincinnati’s business community. Banks, insurance companies and a variety of commercial enterprises moved to this part of downtown, that later became home to the region’s first “skyscrapers”. Fourth Street, once lined with the homes of Cincinnati’s well healed was now the headquarters of the city’s power brokers. The wealthy and a new upper middle class of plant managers, accountants and bankers increasingly were moving out the crowded downtown basin to the city's new suburbs escaping the pollution, noise and crime of Cincinnati's rapidly industrializing economy.

Fourth Street circa 1900


The twin forces of industrialization and urbanization also reshaped Cincinnati’s economy. The emerging national market tied together by more than 115,000 miles of railroad track boosted both the size of Cincinnati firms and the variety of goods produced by them. Older industries tied to its reputation as “Porkopolis” remained strong; meat packing, candles, soap and leather. The Civil War was a catalyst for the growth of businesses providing these consumer products like Proctor and Gamble, a corporation woven into Cincinnati’s identity. Government contracts, mass production techniques and an emerging rail network all contributed to P & G's rise as one of the world’s biggest consumer brands with its humble roots in the soap and candle production of Porkopolis . Another sector of the economy that became identified with the city, beer, also exploded in size. Christian Moerlein and Windisch-Mulhauser were two of the breweries that started as small operations serving a local customer base during the Antebellum era . By the 1890’s both were among the nation’s largest breweries shipping beer across the country. With more than 20 breweries in Cincinnati it is estimated that combined with associated industries that as many 30,000 jobs in Greater Cincinnati were tied to brewing. German immigration certainly played a role in this serving as both an enthusiastic customer base and providing a knowledgeable pool of entrepreneurs and workers from the Old World. In manufacturing the city’s longstanding ties to building steamships provided the infrastructure for the nation’s growing need for skilled machinist to shape, cut and create metal parts as industrialization kicked into high gear. By the turn of the century small metal working shops were growing into giants like the Cincinnati Milling Machine Company and the Lodge and Shipley Machine Tool Co. ( 1892 lathes). These along with dozens of other smaller shops like Fay and Egan (1893 table saws and wood working) populated the Mill Creek Valley, fed by a steady supply of skilled German metal workers who continued to immigrate to the city through the 1890’s, drawn by Cincinnati’s large German population and its growing reputation as a world leader in machine tools. These were just the most identifiable sectors contributing to Cincinnati’s growing reputation as an industrial city.

The Christian Moerlein Brewery


Across the downtown basin money accompanying the new age of big business was translating into new public art and institutions. One of the city’s most identifiable landmarks, the Tyler Davidson Fountain, was unveiled in 1871 on the site of the Fifth Street Market . A gift to the citizens of Cincinnati by one of the city’s “merchant princes”, Tyler Davidson, it was designed by August Von Kreling of Nuremberg with the castings done by Fredinand Von Muller from condemned bronze cannons. Only blocks away ground was broken in 1875 for another Cincinnati landmark, Music Hall. Completed in 1878 Music Hall was the result of an effort initiated by a $125,000 gift from Reuben Springer for a facility to house musical performances and industrial expositions. The gift was contingent upon matching funds from the citizenry of Cincinnati and a perpetual property tax exemption from the city. Designed by one Cincinnati’s best known architects, Samuel Hannaford, it is often considered one of best example of Victorian Age Gothic architecture. In 1880 the new Music Hall hosted the Democratic National Convention that nominated Winfield Scott Hancock to run against Ohio native son James Garfield. During this era interest in public art museums was growing across the country. In Cincinnati that took the form of the Cincinnati Art Museum begun in 1882 on 20 acres of land donated by the city of Cincinnati in Eden Park and supported by generosity of figures like Melville Ingalls, a successful attorney who became the President of the Big Four Railroad. This “Art Palace of the West” as it became known was opened in 1886, one more example of civic pride by the city’s philanthropists.

By 1886 another important institution, the Cincinnati Public School system had 40 public schools serving its elementary and secondary students. Opened in 1831 Woodward High School was the oldest high school west of the Allegheny Mountains. Started as the Woodward Free Grammar school, it was the first free public schools in Cincinnati. It however, was a system that served only white students. Representative of an age of Jim Crow segregation there were two separate public systems in the city, one serving white students and the other serving black students. From the 1870’s on, the Independent Colored School System, serving Cincinnati’s African-American students was intentionally left to languish, starved of funds and attention by the city’s power structure until 1914 when the two system were consolidated. In the realm of higher education the University of Cincinnati moved to the hilltop neighborhood of Clifton in 1895. Chartered by the state legislature in 1870 the University of Cincinnati was largely made possible by Charles McMicken, a wealthy Cincinnati businessman, who left the bulk of his estate to the City of Cincinnati in 1858 to be used in creating a university. It absorbed two earlier institutions the Cincinnati College and Ohio Medical College both established in 1819 located in the downtown basin area making it the second oldest municipal university in the nation.


Governing a city experiencing the kind explosive of growth and change seen during the Gilded Age was challenging at best. Machine politics dominated Cincinnati as in most large American cities of this era. George Barnesdale Cox, better known as " Boss Cox ” brought organization and discipline to the chaotic and ceaseless deal making that characterized the city’s political scene. It was the kind of chaos that paralyzed effective government in the face of unrelenting urban expansion. With rapid population growth and economic change came problems that simply overwhelmed local governments. Sanitation issues, disease, crime, noise, smoke, all led to a declining quality of life in the downtown basin, as population density increased side by side with new industries. The response from local government was haphazard at best often the result of a well placed bribe. Planning and decision making based on consensus did not exit. It was every politician for themselves each seeking the best possible deal until Cox arrived on the scene. The change began in 1884 when George “Boss” Cox started building a political machine that would dominate the city until 1914. His Republican machine simply replaced a Democratic machine that controlled Cincinnati through the 1870’s. While serving in elected office only one time during these years he ran the city and court house in classic political machine style, doling out government and party jobs in return for iron clad loyalty. From an office above the Mecca Saloon he determined the fate of public works projects, delivery of government services and the employment of hundreds of Cincinnatians. A master political organizer he fashioned an alliance of opposing factions within the Republican Party while also successfully co-opting the loyalty of Democrats in Cincinnati’s working- class downtown basin neighborhoods. The Cox machine candidates won at the ballot box as a consequence of an informal welfare system that aided the poor, winning both their eternal gratefulness and votes. Public works projects became a form of political currency for the delivery of blocs of neighborhood and ethnic votes to Cox candidates. While these practices were largely legal, the result was not wise or efficient government. However, to ensure the victory of the favored candidates voting fraud was common as were bribery and kickbacks lining the pockets of Cox and his cronies. Nonetheless he informally presided over the building of a modern water works for the city and significant reforms of the police and fire departments. He also backed efforts to expand Cincinnati through annexation of smaller neighboring cities. Though his tactics were questionable at best, he brought organization and discipline to the chaos of Gilded Age politics allowing things to get done.

By 1900 modern Cincinnati had been born. Its transportation infrastructure both knitted Cincinnati into a sprawling city of neighborhoods and extended the reach of its prospering industries to every corner of the country while Cincinnati's growing wealth furnished it with landmarks, architecture and the institutions befitting a modern industrial city of the Gilded Age. Look for future postings on this Cincinnati History blog exploring the lives of Samuel Hannaford and Boss Cox.

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Stephanie Watkins
Stephanie Watkins
Aug 09, 2023

I am looking for information about Francis (Frank) Marion Watkins and his businesses and anything about the man that I can find. Anyone with information, it would be greatly appreciated if you could contact me at

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