Chamber's 175 Years of Partnerships

Expo Music Hall
A scene from the main exhibit hall at the new Music Hall and Exposition Center. To accommodate its multiple uses, the floor was flat with no fixed seats and no presidium stage.

The Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber is a membership organization. The Chamber’s first responsibility is to address the interests and needs of its 4500 member companies. Over the past 175 years that has included efforts to attract businesses, advocate business friendly policies with local, state and federal governments, and the sponsorship of literally hundreds of training, educational and leadership development programs.

In addition, the Chamber as always been involved with more broadly focused community programs, almost always in collaboration with other community groups. The best examples in recent years is Agenda 360, a regional action plan that has spawned the Story Project and Diverse by Design, and efforts to promote a new Brent Spence Bridge.

Expo machines
The Machinery Hall at an Industrial Exposition in the 1880s reinforces Cincinnati’s emergence as a machine tool center. Courtesy: Cincinnati Historical Society

This type of collaborative community programming is nothing new. At the close of the Civil War, with the Southern markets in ruins, the nation rapidly reorienting itself westward and rival cities booming along the Great Lakes, Cincinnatians felt compelled to expand the markets for local industries and to redefine the city’s image.

In the Fall of 1869, the Cincinnati Board of Trade, the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and the Ohio Mechanics Institute agreed to jointly plan an industrial exposition for 1870. The partners initially pledged just $1,000 apiece, but immediately set about raising a Guarantee Fund to cover any shortfall in revenues. In 1870 they raised $24,000. By the time of the last exposition in 1888, commemorating the City Centennial, together they raised $1,050,000.

Over an 18 year period the Industrial Expositions drew millions of people to Cincinnati and promoted local manufacturers and merchants. They were so successful, Alfred Goshorn, the chief organizer, was catapulted to the national stage as the leader of the nation’s Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia in 1876. Historian Phillip Spiess II has documented the “enviable legacy” of the Industrial Expositions, which includes the development of Cincinnati Music Hall and Exposition Buildings (which served as our convention center until 1970), the Art Museum and interest in a permanent horticultural display which became the Irwin M. Krohn Conservatory.

Expo posterBy 1873, the collaboration between the Chamber of Commerce, the Board of Trade and the Ohio Mechanics Institute was rebranding Cincinnati as the place to hold major expositions and conventions. A few years later, in 1880, Cincinnati hosted its first national political party nominating convention.

The Chamber’s most far reaching community collaboration, and its most surprising, grew out of a partnership with the Cincinnati Observatory. In early 1868 Cleveland Abbe became the director of the Cincinnati Observatory on Mt. Adams. When the Observatory first opened in the 1840s, it was one of the most important research centers in the United States. But pollution for the city’s thousands of coal furnaces had dimmed the skies and reduced its usefulness as a primary research facility. Abbe proposed that the Observatory be reoriented to the applied sciences, specifically predicting storms and drought.

On July 29, 1868 Abbe wrote a letter to John Gano, the President of the Chamber of Commerce and publisher of the Cincinnati Commercial newspaper. Abbe proposed that the Cincinnati Observatory serve as “the central station for meteorological dispatches” collected daily from newspapers and Western Union telegraph stations all over the country. The data would include temperature, barometer readings, moisture, surface wind directions and cloud cover.

Cleveland, AbbeAbbe proposed to enter the data on “an appropriate manuscript chart” which would then be sent back out through the Associated Press along with “such general predictions of the weather for the next two days as we may seem authorized to venture upon.” He assured Gano that “at least in the case of a great storm” the Observatory would have greater certainty than what was being generated in France or England, where predictions were correct only 30 percent of the time.

The Chamber of Commerce agreed to support Abbe’s experiment for three months. Although the proposed Cincinnati centric system imagined by Abbe was never fully developed, his efforts over the next two years drew national attention. When the United States government created what became the National Weather Bureau under the U.S. Army Signal Corps in early 1870, its leaders turned to Cleveland Abbe, who moved to Washington, D.C. in January 1871 to head the national effort.

Weather map 1870
The weather map created by Cleveland Abbe on April 19, 1870. Note that no understanding of weather systems or fronts existed at that time. Courtesy: Cincinnati Historical Society

Cleveland Abbe became the nation’s most famous meteorologist earning the nickname “Old Probabilities” for his predictions. But despite his own confidence about accuracy, Mark Twain made him the object of his very sharp pen. Twain quipped in 1876 that Old Probabilities may have been OK predicting weather out West, but New England was a different matter. There, according to Twain, his predictions went something like, “Probably northeast to southwest winds, varying to the southward and westward and eastward and points between, high and low barometer swapping around from place to place; probable areas of rain, snow, hail, and drought, succeeded or preceded by earthquakes, with thunder and lightning.”

In addition to his collaboration with the Chamber on weather forecasting, Abbe also cooperated with the Chamber on regularizing local time keeping. The Observatory had the most accurate clocks in the city (they were essential scientific instruments) and every day, exactly at Noon, Abbe raised a ball on a poll in front of the Observatory overlooking the City. Anyone who wished, could adjust their clocks and watches.

Even in 1868 and 69, Abbe already understood that as railroads tied the nation together, time keeping would have to be regularized. Like his work in meteorology, this did not culminate for decades (1883) when railroads and business adopted time zones and standards.

Because of his brief three year collaboration with the Cincinnati Chamber, Cleveland Abbe launched a career that transformed how you and I organize our days and decide whether or not we need to take an umbrella in the morning.

Hurley, DanBy Dan Hurley, local historian, host of the weekly “Local 12 Newsmakers” program and former director of Leadership Cincinnati for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.

This is the fourth in a series of 12 essays about the history of the Chamber and Cincinnati business, to commemorate the Chamber’s 175th anniversary.

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