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Collection Meeting of Frontiers

Western Cities

This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

Although the trans-Mississippi West is typically portrayed as overwhelmingly rural, major urban centers have played a central role in the history of the region. Most often located near navigable rivers, natural bays, railroad lines, or rich mineral deposits, most cities developed in gradual stages upon the foundations of earlier settlements.

Other "instant cities" appeared almost overnight. Many matured into important regional transportation, commercial, political, and cultural centers.

In 1850 only St. Louis ranked among the top twenty urban areas in the United States. By the end of the century San Francisco, New Orleans, and Minneapolis were also on the list. In the twentieth century, industrial growth spurred by two world wars, the emergence of high-tech industries, and the advent of suburban living have all contributed to making the modern West one of the most urban sections of the nation. In 1990, when more than 80 percent of westerners lived in metropolitan areas, Los Angeles ranked second in population only to New York, and five other cities west of the Mississippi River could claim a spot in the top ten.

The Eleven Largest Trans-Mississippi Cities, 1900

  1. Denver, Colorado (pop. 133,859).
    Like San Francisco, Denver was an "instant city." News that gold had been discovered on Cherry Creek drew thousands of hopeful miners to the area in 1858 and 1859. Banks, hotels, restaurants, saloons, dry-goods stores, and other businesses sprouted up to provide for the needs of the miners and encourage them to part with any wealth they might have discovered. In 1867, the new metropolis became the capital of Colorado and rail service connected it with the rest of the nation three years later. Such transportation links allowed Denver to develop into a regional smelting center. While it was mineral extraction that underpinned Denver's economy during the nineteenth century, oil, high-tech, and manufacturing industries have since diversified the city's economy.
  2. Kansas City, Missouri (pop.163,752).
    In 1821 Francois Chouteau erected a fur-trading post called Westport Landing at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers. Spurred by economic activity relating to the fur trade and western migration, the small town grew steadily and was renamed Kansas in 1853. The Missouri Pacific Railroad arrived in 1865, and soon thereafter eight more lines connected the growing community to the rest of the nation. Desiring to reflect the maturity of their community, civic leaders added "City" to the name of their town in 1889. Kansas City has since prospered as a transportation hub and regional center.
  3. Los Angeles, California (pop. 102,479).
    Long occupied by semi-nomadic Native Americans, the area was not settled by Europeans until 1781, when Spain established the pueblo of Nuestra Senora La Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula. The pueblo served as the capital of Alta California and the hub of southern California's cattle-based economy. The gold rush of 1849 stimulated the growth of the city. Moreover, the arrival of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1876 and the Santa Fe Railroad in 1885 linked Los Angeles to the San Francisco area and the East. By the late nineteenth century, the cultivation of oranges and the discovery of oil bolstered the economy. The population shot up from 12,000 in 1880 to 320,000 three decades later. In the twentieth century, the film industry has contributed to the stunning growth of this densely populated metropolis.
  4. St. Paul Minnesota (pop. 163,065) & Minneapolis, Minnesota (pop. 202,718)
    Situated on the upper reaches of the Mississippi River, the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis matured in unison, serving together as an important transportation hub and regional center since their founding in the middle of the nineteenth century. St. Paul catered to the needs of local farmers and immigrants headed further west, while Minneapolis harnessed the power of the Falls of St. Anthony to power lumber and flour mills. At first steamboats transported goods and passengers in and out of the Twin Cities. In time, however, St. Paul became home to both the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railroads, which tied the cities to the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
  5. New Orleans, Louisiana (pop. 287,104).
    Nicknamed the "Crescent City" due to its location on a bend of the river, New Orleans was established in 1718 by the French governor of Louisiana, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, who then commissioned Adrian de Pauger to lay out its boundaries and street plan. An important trading center, at one time or another the delta city was under the control of Spain, France, and the United States. Furs, crops, and other commodities from the continent's interior arrived in New Orleans, where they were loaded aboard ocean-going vessels for transport to distant locations. Maritime enterprises would remain the foundation of the city's economy.
  6. Omaha, Nebraska (pop. 102,555).
    Located on the Missouri River, the area was originally settled by Omaha Indians. An 1854 treaty required the native inhabitants to cede their land to the U. S. government, which promptly opened the area to white settlers. Designated as the territorial capital, the city was a political center as well as a transportation hub and supply point for western emigrants. Although Omaha lost the title of capital to Lincoln in 1867, the arrival of the railroad in 1865 had enhanced the city's commercial importance. Stockyards, meat-packing plants, and food-processing centers soon broadened and diversified Omaha's economic base.
  7. Portland, Oregon (pop. 90,426).
    A flip of a coin in 1844 determined that the town established twelve miles up the Willamette River would be named after Portland, Maine, rather than Salem, Massachusetts. Providing for the needs of various western gold rushes, Portland grew steadily during the late nineteenth century and matured into the center of the Pacific Northwest economy. Already home to the headquarters of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, which monopolized upstream Columbia River transportation, Portland became an even more important commercial center with the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1883. It suffered an economic downturn during the depression of the 1890s, but prosperity returned with the discovery of gold in Alaska and the growth of the salmon industry. By 1905, Portland was producing more lumber than any other city in the nation; however, it was steadily losing regional supremacy to Seattle, which served as the main gateway for goods flowing to and from the northern gold fields. During World War II, Henry Kaiser's enormous shipyards generated thousands of jobs that brought streams of new residents to the city.
  8. Saint Louis, Missouri (pop. 575,238).
    Located just south of the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and founded in 1762, St. Louis was well positioned geographically to serve as the commercial capital of the interior West. It would become an important center for the Rocky Mountain fur trade, as well as a staging ground and departure point for people headed west to settle or explore. The arrival of the railroad in the 1850s enhanced the city's commercial importance and fueled its growth. For much of the nineteenth century, St. Louis linked the industrial East to the resource-laden West. Its importance diminished later in the century, however, when Chicago emerged as the most important "gateway" to the West.
  9. San Francisco, California (pop. 342,782).
    In 1776 Spain established the mission San Francisco de Asis and a small military post on the tip of a narrow peninsula near a spectacular natural bay. By 1835, a small settlement had appeared at Yerba Buena cove. At first growth was slow in this northern outpost of Spain's North American empire; however, the discovery of gold in California in 1849 brought a flood of fortune hunters through the area. An abundant supply of merchants and bankers arrived at the same time, eager to profit by catering to the needs of the "forty-niners." Almost instantly, the small settlement blossomed into a major city. Boasting a bustling port, an extensive banking district, and developing industries, San Francisco became the premier city in the Far West. Even the devastating earthquake in 1906 could not dislodge San Francisco from its position as the dominant city in the region.
  10. St. Joseph, Missouri (pop. 102,979).
    Joseph Robidoux III established St. Joseph in 1826 as a trading post. During the 1840s, thousands of wagons crossed the Missouri River at St. Joseph on their way to the fertile lands of the nearby Platte River or to more distant locations in California and Oregon. Providing for the needs of emigrants proved to be quite profitable and the town grew rapidly. Its importance increased in 1859 with the completion of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad--the first to span the Missouri. A few years later it would be selected as the eastern terminus of the Pony Express, which provided speedy mail service to distant California.