Telling our story across 175 years

Public Landing
Public Landing, 1849, by Otto Onken - The Public Landing was the economic center of the American West when merchants organized the Chamber of Commerce. In addition to the 8,000 steamboats that landed every year in 1850, this Otto Onken lithograph proudly showed off some of the businesses that framed the top of the Landing.

One of the most creative initiatives launched by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber in recent years is the Story Project. Like so many efforts of the modern Chamber, the Story Project is a regional collaboration, led by Agenda 360 in Ohio and Vision 2015 in Northern Kentucky.

The Story Project grew out of the insights gained by CEOs who traveled to Charlotte, Pittsburgh and Denver on Chamber sponsored Leadership Exchanges to benchmark against other cities. Leaders in other metropolitan communities seemed to have common narratives to tell about their communities. The Story Project was born to create a master narrative that is built around five themes, as well as a collection of images and tools that anyone responsible for telling our story can find on the web (story-project.org) and utilize in their messaging.

This need to tell our story is very old, and was especially strong at the very time that local business owners formed the original Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and Board of Trade on October 15, 1839.

Like so many other new settlements in the vast American West, early Cincinnatians wanted to believe that they lived in one of the future great cities of the continent. In reality, for half a century after its founding in 1788, Cincinnati was little more than one more scruffy river town with promise.

That began to change in the mid-1830s when the combination of its central location on one of America's great navigable inland rivers, the development of steamboats and the beginning of a great wave of immigration from Europe propelled Cincinnati past other inland cities both in terms of population size and economic vitality.

Residents of every little town and city bragged about the real and imagined assets of their community. That's the best explanation of the origin of Cincinnati's first, and most enduring, nickname, "the Queen City of the West."

That image was used in print (and seemingly already popular in conversation) on May 4, 1819 in an article written by Ed. B. Cooke in the Inquisitor and Cincinnati Advertiser. Cooke wrote that, "The City is, indeed, justly styled the fair Queen of the West: distinguished for order, enterprise, public spirit, and liberality, she stands the wonder of an admiring world." Most people think is was the creation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1854 when he employed the phrase in his poem, "Catawba Wine." In fact, Longfellow was simply utilizing an image already in wide circulation for at least 35 years.

Milward & Oldershaw
Milward & Oldershaw in Covington was the most modern of the slaughterhouses that made Cincinnati famous as the largest single center of pork packing in the United States or Europe.

When the city's population began two decades of explosive growth around 1835, Cincinnati became a good city for people with big dreams. Some boosters imagined Cincinnati in terms of national and even world leadership. In 1841 Jacob Scott predicted "that within one hundred years from this time, Cincinnati will be the greatest city in America; and in the year of our Lord two thousand, the greatest city in the world." Another booster insisted that the nation's capital would eventually be relocated from the east coast to the center of the country and Cincinnati would be the logical new location.

More restrained, but more insightful, was the work of Charles Cist, the editor of Cist's Weekly Advertiser and collector of the census in 1840 and 1850. Because of this latter role, he commanded a vast array of data. His three book length volumes, Cincinnati in 1841: It's Early Annals and Future Prospects;Sketches and Statistics of Cincinnati in 1851 and Sketches and Statistics of Cincinnati in 1859 provided the members of the early Chamber a rich source of data about the growth of the local economy.

It is fascinating today to read the chapters on "Manufactures and Industrial Products" and glimpse the local economy long before it was clear that Procter & Gamble would survive, much less emerge as an important company and century before anyone thought a grocer might own anything more than a corner store.

In the last five years, the creators of Story Project used all of the modern tools to develop their product. They assembled focus groups to gather insights and develop consensus around the five themes. They employed the internet and Facebook to distribute project materials and grow additional resources (see the "Share Your Story" component).

But underneath, the need to understand the dynamics of the community and develop coherent narratives that drove Jacob Scott, Charles Cist and those early members of the Chamber of Commerce in the 1840s and 50s are very similar to what drives the directors and staff of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber 175 years later.

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 first 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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