Upriver to Cincinnati, 1840–1860

The Ohio River brought prosperity and people to Cincinnati—and carried away pork. By the 1850s, Cincinnati was the Midwest’s leading commercial and manufacturing city, almost four times the size of Chicago. Through the early 1800s, the city supplied southern plantations and towns with flour, whiskey, manufactured goods, and especially pork. The city’s location also profited from the goods shipped upriver and destined for northern Ohio by canal.

Cincinnati’s rapid growth attracted many free black people and immigrants. In 1850, almost 30 percent of the city’s population was German-born.

Cincinnati Riverfront, September 1848

Detail, Plates 1 and 4, of Daguerreotype View of Cincinnati. Taken from Newport, Ky., by Charles Fontayne and William Porter

Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County


The entire riverfront was filled with flatboats loading cargoes for New Orleans and all waypoints... Only pork was packed, as the south did not feed beef to its slaves.
—John P. Parker, describing Cincinnati in the 1840s


Pork packing in Cincinnati

Harper’s Weekly, Sept. 9, 1873

Courtesy of the Mariner’s Museum


[Pigs are] brought in from the country in large herds, on the outer edge of the city there are large buildings where about 1,000 a day are slaughtered and cleaned, then they’re brought into the city where they are cut up and salted and put in barrels, that’s how they’re sent from here to other countries.
—Prussian immigrant Ernst Stille, Cincinnati, July 1848


Adapted from “Map of Rail Road Line between Loveland and Cincinnati . . .,” 1860

Courtesy of the Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

Cincinnati’s Water Connections

The Ohio legislature approved construction of two canals in 1825, including one linking the Ohio River at Cincinnati with agricultural lands to the north. The Miami and Erie Canal eventually extended as far as Toledo on the Great Lakes. Four hundred boats operated on the canal at its height in 1851.



Keelboats like this carried traffic on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in the early 1800s. They could move upstream or down—sailed, rowed, poled, or hauled with tow-lines. Keelboats stayed in service into the 1850s.

Typical keelboat packet barge, about 1810


Sidewheel Steamboat Buckeye State

Built at Johnstown, Ohio, 1849

View object record

The Buckeye State

During the 1850s, steamboats carried much of the commerce on the Ohio River. Faster boats like the Buckeye State could demand higher freight and passenger rates. In May 1850, with 200 people aboard and no cargo, the Buckeye State ran 480 miles upstream from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh in 43 hours, the fastest time ever.