Soapdish: Cincinnati will always be Queen City of the West

No doubt you're familiar with Cincinnati’s traditional moniker as the Queen City, derived as it were from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1854 poem “Catawba Wine.” In it, he wrote of the city: “And this Song of the Vine/ This greeting of mine/ The winds and the birds shall deliver/ To the Queen of the West/ In her garlands dressed/ On the banks of the Beautiful River.”

(Local schoolchildren should be required to memorize this poem, but I digress.)

When Longfellow wrote those lines, Cincinnati was the largest westernmost inland city in America, a gateway to the wild and wooly frontier. The booming river city was pretty much the cradle of Western Civilization in the wilderness — if by “Western” you mean “west of the Alleghenies.”

Ah yes, “west of the Alleghenies,” that uniquely Cincinnati demarcation point by which so many “firsts” have been celebrated here. Cincinnati was, and still is, a fertile crescent of innovation and invention, and the list of “first (insert just about any accomplishment) west of the Alleghenies” is long and illustrious indeed.

Back then it seemed that East Coast cities were on one side of the Allegheny Mountains doing all their haughty East Coast-y stuff, while little ol’ Cincinnati was on the other side proudly carrying the flag of modern civilization forth. That was a time when the 400-mile mountain range stretching from Pennsylvania down through Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia was a true barrier to Americans wanting to move west.

Even Nicholas Longworth’s celebrated Catawba Wine, grown on the hillsides of Mt. Adams and the inspiration for Longworth’s prose, spawned its own “first.” Although Longworth had been producing a Franzia-like semi-sweet Catawba wine since 1827, in the spring of 1842 a batch of pink Catawba wine accidentally underwent a second fermentation, producing America’s very first sparkling wine.

While many will regale you with tales of the first professional baseball team west or east of the Alleghenies (that would be the Cincinnati Redstockings), did you also know that old Woodward High School (1826), located on the site of the former School for Creative and Performing Arts in Pendleton, was the first free public school west of the Alleghenies? The current building, slated to become apartments (“Alumni Lofts”), was the third building on the site to house the school.

On the day after his election in 1908, President-Elect William Howard Taft, who graduated from Woodward High School in 1874, laid the cornerstone of the building, which opened to students in 1910.

In fact, Cincinnati had a number of educational firsts west of the Alleghenies, including the first medical school (Medical College of Ohio, 1819, now known as the University of Cincinnati Medical School); the first law school (UC, 1833); the first college of pharmacy (UC, 1850); and the first women’s college (Mt. Auburn Female College, 1856, on the current site of Christ Hospital).

UC vs. Miami is also known as the oldest Division I college football rivalry west of the Alleghenies, dating back to 1888.

In the non-secular world of education, it should be noted that The Athenaeum of Ohio (Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary, currently located in Mt. Washington) is the first Catholic seminary west of the Alleghenies and third oldest in the country, opening downtown in 1831.

Cincinnati’s role as a Western outpost in Jewish history should also be highlighted. Gravesite aficionados will no doubt be fascinated with the oldest Jewish cemetery west of the Alleghenies, Chestnut Street Cemetery (1821), located just west of downtown in the Betts-Longworth Historic District. There’s even a (somewhat hidden) sign proclaiming it as “the oldest Jewish cemetery west of the Allegheny Mountains.”

The compact space holds 85 tombstones, the most recent dating to 1849, when that year’s cholera epidemic put a squeeze on available plots.

While on the subject of epidemics, it should be noted that Cincinnati was home to the first public tuberculosis hospital (1897), representing the community’s commitment to “priority in medical progress.”

In addition, Cincinnati is home to the oldest Jewish congregation (Rockdale Temple, 1824) west of the Alleghenies. It also bears mentioning that Izzy’s deli is apparently the first Jewish-style deli (1901) west of the Alleghenies, for those who keep track of such things (like me).

The firsts in the fields of arts and culture are also notable, including the first “purpose-built art museum west of the Alleghenies,” the Cincinnati Art Museum (1881) — “purpose-built” basically meaning that the art museum is located in its own building, a novel concept at the time.

In addition, downtown’s Mercantile Library (1835) is the oldest membership library west of the Alleghenies (and also, cliche alert, a marvelous hidden gem here). The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County naturally holds the public library title as well, dating back to 1853.

For those more inclined to look to the sky, the Wolff Planetarium in Burnett Woods (capacity: 20) is the oldest public planetarium of the West, dating back to the relatively recent year of 1950. I would also be remiss not to mention our famed Cincinnati Zoo, the second oldest (by one year) in the country, the oldest west of the Alleghenies and home of the oldest zoo structure anywhere in the U.S. (Reptile House, 1871).

In other sundry affairs, Cincinnati can claim title to the oldest municipal golf course (Avon Fields, 1914); oldest auction house (Main Auction Galleries on Fourth Street, 1800s); and first fire insurance underwriters board west of the Alleghenies. In the mental health categories, we can also claim the oldest community mental health agency (Central Clinic, 1923) as well as the first insane asylum, the Commercial Hospital and Lunatic Asylum for the State of Ohio (1821).

In the realm of individual accomplishments, our rich steamboat history no doubt contributed to the arrival of John Steptoe from England in 1850, who is somehow considered the “First Machine Tool Builder West of the Alleghenies.”

Even more colorful was Geo. Curtis Blackman, who was declared by The Cincinnati Lancet in 1888 to be the “finest surgeon west of the Alleghenies.” In addition, the description of Dr. Blackman in The Lancet deserves honorable mention, in my humble opinion, as one of the “Best Bios West of the Alleghenies” based on this excerpt alone: “Thirty-five years old and fourteen years a doctor, his life had been one of hard study and a prolonged struggle with disease and poverty. Declared a consumptive, he was sent to and fro across the Atlantic for a period of three years. ... Quick, resolute, impetuous, skilful, fitful, jealous, intolerant, with all the attractiveness and waywardness of genius, he was, in his prime, the greatest surgeon West of the Alleghenies.” Quite the epitaph.

While this list is by no means exhaustive, it certainly highlights the role of Cincinnati, the Queen City of the West, as the preeminent cradle of west-of-the-Alleghenies civilization. While perhaps harkening back to a somewhat musty, sepia-toned vision, the city’s list of “firsts” is indeed a heritage to be proud of and highlighted.

Honestly, as a non-native, when I tell people I live in Cincinnati I’d much rather get a response of “Oh yeah, I love Cincinnati, it’s home of the oldest _______ west of the Alleghenies!” rather than the tired and predictable “Oh, Cincinnati, chili!”

Let’s break open a bottle of vintage Catawba Bubbly and make this happen.
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Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.