Cincinnati As An Early Transportation Hub
Long ago, Cincinnati Ohio was the home of the Ohio Indians. Europeans settled the area in 1788 and built Fort Washington to protect the area from Indian raids. Its growth was driven by transportation: steamboats in the 1810s, completion of the Erie and Miami canals in the 1920s, and ultimately, the construction of a railroad in the 1870s.
These transport options allowed farmers, ranchers, and others to bring raw materials to the city and spurred the development of a manufacturing industry that processed raw materials into finished consumer goods. It also established Cincinnati as one of the primary trading and shipping centers between the south and the north.
This growth created a need for more and more labor. Fortunately, labor was widely available The Germans were fleeing religious conflicts in the 1830s, and the Irish were fleeing Ireland’s potato famine in the 1840s. Its geographic location, transportation, and inexpensive labor led Cincinnati into becoming the largest pork packing center in the country with most of this pork going to the south.
This created problems during the Civil War with businessmen often being of mixed minds as to which side to support. While Ohio did end up with the Union, business plunged during the war only to pick up where it left off, with much of the volume shipped to the economically crippled South on the recently constructed railroad.
By this time, the city was home to two universities, the University of Cincinnati and Xavier, which provided an ongoing supply of educated office workers and managers and prompted several companies to establish their headquarters in the city. The city continued to grow through the 20th century becoming home to many more major corporations.
And speaking of railroads, by being just across the Ohio River from Confederate Kentucky, Cincinnati became a key link in the Underground Railroad. This role was commemorated at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (see below).
Exploring Cincinnati Ohio
We found a lot to explore in Cincinnati. Among our favorites:
This quasi-official city center rolls out around the 1871 Tyler-Davidson Fountain. It is lined with office towers, upscale shops, and restaurants. It is the site of regular concerts during summer weekends with movies, trivia games, and other entertainment on weekends. It is also one of eight designated entertainment districts, which are large concentrations of restaurants and bars that are spread across the city and often include places people can congregate outdoors.
The Riverfront District: A Jewel in the City
Although Fountain Square is effectively the center of the city, much of the action is centered around the Ohio River which has undergone huge changes over the city’s history. From the spot at which the first Europeans set foot in what would become Cincinnati, it became a steamboat port and one of the largest steamship manufacturing sites in the country. It then became a temporary refuge for enslaved people escaping the south, a preferred site for large, polluting industrial factories, and up into the 1970s, a scrapyard.
By this time, the city recognized the need to clean up the waterfront and transform it into a refuge for the city’s tourists. There’s a lot to see along the waterfront. We were there on a hot day when people were milling all around, enjoying the baseball game, the weather, and the scenery.
The stadiums for the city’s Reds MLB baseball team and the Bengals NFL football team are both in the area.
The Banks Entertainment District
This one-block pedestrian zone leads right to the Red’s Hall of Fame and Great America ballpark. It is lined with restaurants and bars that are all filled before and after games.
Smale Riverfront Park
The park runs between the two stadiums. It provides the starting point for a long, scenic riverwalk. It has a large open playground, small, more intimate landscaped areas, and several family-friendly features including a carousel, child-accessible water feature, swing sets, and adventure playground which sports a range of fun, interactive exercise, and educational equipment. The park also contains a monument to the city’s black brigade that was formed to help protect the city from an expected confederate attack.
Yeatman’s Cove Park
The park marks the city’s founding point with a serpentine concrete wall with seating and an amphitheater. It has interpretive signs that provide an overview of the city’s founding and development and a statue of Cincinnatus, the Roman General who after saving Rome from invaders, retired to his estate rather than assuming authoritarian control of the government—just as Washington was prepared to do after winning the Revolutionary War.
During our visit, people were sitting around in the large open area listening to a group performing on the stage. A series of inflatable structures were scattered around on which children can play.
National Steamboat Monument
A sculpture of a 30-foot paddlewheel blows steam and plays music. The area also contains the dock for the Belle of Cincinnati, a replica of an 18th-century steamship on which people can take a range of cruises. Interpretive signs explain the history of the steamboat in Cincinnati and describe many of the steamboats built on the shoreline. These include the ill-fated Sultana whose boiler exploded while ferrying more than 2,000 Union POWs home from the south at the end of the war. More than 1,700 of them died, which is more than the number who died on the Titanic. It was the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.
Three bridges cross the Ohio River to Kentucky. We particularly liked the graceful Roebling Suspension Bridge and the Newport Southbank Bridge. The latter was converted into a pedestrian bridge and painted to reflect its nickname—the Purple People Bridge.
More Places To Explore In Cincinnati
Other areas to visit include:
- Neighborhoods, especially the exclusive Mount Adams residential and commercial district.
- The Art Deco Union Station has been redefined as the Cincinnati Museum Center. It houses the city’s history, natural history, a children’s museums, and an IMAX theater.
- Eden Park is the home to the Cincinnati Art Museum, an observatory, a playhouse, lakes, gardens, groves, and miles of trails.
- William Howard Taft National Historic Site is the birthplace and childhood home of the 27th president.
- Taft Museum of Art is a small museum.
- American Sign Museum has a collection of 19th– and 20th-century American signs from metal and plastic to large neon signs.
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center covers ground similar to that of Washington D.C’s African-American Museum with a more in-depth focus on one facet of American racial relations. Since Cincinnati is set on the banks of the Ohio River, it reflects the actual boundary between the country’s slave and free states and the symbolic, yet still illusory goal of enslaved people’s quest for freedom. The goal was illusory since the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision allowed escapees to be recaptured any time before they arrived in Canada. But since the river of the mid-19th century was much narrower and shallower than that today, it allowed easy crossing by foot or horseback in some spots.
The museum uses a combination of interpretive panels, artifacts, videos, and interactive exhibits to explain life under slavery, the chimera of freedom, and the tradeoffs inherent in leaving one’s family and community for the many unforeseen dangers and high odds of recapture or death.
From Slavery to Freedom
The exhibition begins on the third floor with the large “From Slavery to Freedom” Gallery. It portrays four decades of slavery from the time the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, and British ships began plundering the African coasts for slaves. They enlisted coastal chiefs to capture inland slaves for sale and forced their transport to new lives. Lives, that is, if they could survive the inhuman conditions on slave ships. Up to 30 percent of the “cargo” could die in transport. At least the slavers recognized that they could not sell dead slaves and that moderately healthy slaves commanded higher prices than those that were half dead.
It describes the creation of the Triangular slave trade and the growth of slavery in the New World from the huge sugar plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean to the smaller North American counterparts that employed far fewer slaves than their southern counterparts. The North American Colonial and Antebellum slave populations may have been much smaller than in the Caribbean and South American counterparts. However, it still played a huge role in the new nation’s economy—accounting for 77 percent of the country’s total productive capital as of 1820.
Slavery in North America
Given the museum’s focus on the Underground Railroad, the museum focuses primarily on North America. It started from the arrival of the first slaves who were probably indentured servants in 1619 through the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. It explained the role of the key cash crops (initially tobacco, sugar, and rice—and the huge growth of cotton after the 1794 invention of the cotton gin) in different states and how slaves accounted for between 30 and 60 percent of the population of southern states in the early 19th century. Percentages were tiny in most northern states and, beginning in 1777 in Vermont, illegal in some.
Despite the high number and percentage of the enslaved population in the south, only a small percentage of southern families owned slaves and many of those that did own fewer than five. Slaveholding was concentrated in a relatively small number of wealthy families—the men which dominated their states’ government offices.
While the importation of slaves was halted in 1808, slavery continued and slaves were bought and sold through the internal slave trade. Their numbers continued to grow rapidly through 1840, which marked the peak of U.S. slave ownership at about 3.5 million. By that time, however, demands for abolition had expanded throughout the north. While the issue of slavery took center stage in 1858 with the Lincoln-Douglass debates, even Lincoln, at that time and through his 1860 election as President, was only calling for an end to the spread of slavery, not for its abolition. That, however, did not stop the southern states (led by South Carolina a month after Lincoln’s election as president) from seceding
As with the Revolutionary War before it, the Civil War drew many young southern men to war and away from the daily task of preventing escapes. This led to a surge of escape attempts and, in both wars, an effort by the opposing side (the British in the Revolutionary War and the Union in the Civil War) to lure slaves to fight against their oppressors with promises of freedom. This surge led to a more systematic effort to help these escapees.
Although the rudiments of the Underground Railroad were in place at least since the 1830s, it grew steadily through the 1850s and especially during the war. It became a relatively formal (albeit still secret) network of conductors, stationmasters, safe houses, and transits into Canada.
After a brief overview of the War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the passages of the 13th-15th amendments, the promise and premature dismantling of Reconstruction, and the rise of Black Codes and lynchings, the emphasis turned toward the operation of the Underground Railroad. This story was told through a combination of exhibits, interpretive panels, and a number of videos. This, as was the case throughout the entire museum, was told extensively through highly stories of the participants—from the abolitionists, through railroad participants, and through the wrenching decisions and perilous journeys of the escapees themselves.
One of the most dramatic of the exhibits was an early 19th-century “Slave Pen” that had been excavated and reconstructed. These pens were located all along southern slave routes. They were used to temporarily store slaves who were awaiting sale or newly sold slaves who were being transported from markets to and among plantations. Other exhibits included textile artworks and murals that portray the struggle for and meanings of freedom and several other sculptures and paintings.
A series of short films tell stories including the traumatic decisions made to leave families to venture an escape, the roles of conductors, stationmasters, and others who risked their lives to help enslaved people reach freedom. Another film and exhibition examine the many types of human trafficking and slavery that continue throughout much of the world. Other exhibits include:
- Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration includes a number of Museum of Modern Art works that were created by incarcerated men and women.
- Slavery Today provides examples of the many types of slavery that continue to exist though many sections of the world, from Eastern Europe, though Central Asia to South America. These forms of slavery range from child labor forced labor to bonded and domestic servitude and sex trafficking. It portrays how people become enslaved from being lured by fraudulent ads and Facebook posts through kidnapping. It talks about the lives of today’s slaves and efforts to expose slavery and free victims and give them second chances at life.
- Open Your Mind is an interactive exhibit that begins with scenarios of subtle and unintentional racial stereotyping, bias, and discrimination. It then moves on to where it comes from, how to recognize it in oneself and others, and how to address it.
Via Vite is an Italian restaurant that overlooks Freedom Square and one of Cincinnati’s summer weekend concerts (which we could also see on the square’s giant video screen). We shared a fritto misto that had calamari, shrimp, chilis, and lemon. We followed that with a pan-seared Faroe Island salmon that was nicely complemented by roasted carrot puree, caramelized brussel sprouts, and truffled brown butter balsamic vinaigrette. We chose a very pleasant 2020 Etna Bianco from Terra Nere to go with the meal.
Jeff Ruby Steakhouse is a traditional “Lexington-type” steakhouse. It is large with a carved wooden bar, large chandeliers, Art Deco fixtures and decorative objects, and a very big, impressive 17-page wine list. After returning both of our overcooked dishes, we were very happy with their replacements: a grilled Delmonico ribeye and Faroe Island salmon with quinoa and miso-citrus butter along with a side of sautéed mushrooms. The wine was a 2018 Chateau Boutesse Right Bank Bordeaux blend.
McCormick & Schmick. We shared a large, very good wild salmon stuffed with crab, shrimp, brie cheese, artichoke hearts, and sun-dried tomatoes. It came with mashed potatoes and green beans.
Leave a Reply