Essay/Book Review: Founding American Towns on Paper, Cities of the American West, Part 2

Cities of the American West: A History of Frontier Urban Planning
By John W. Reps
Princeton University Press, 827 pages, out of print, available on the internet starting at $40

Part Two of Two Parts (Find Part One here)

Chicago, San Francisco, and even Cripple Creek, Colorado—all built on one or more street grids—are towns laid out in the 19th century that are still with us today.

Because of the flatness of Chicago’s land, its vast unified street grid (perhaps the largest in the world), made eminent sense and still does today. The undulating landscape of the other two wasn’t as appropriate for the rectangular grid or multiple grids they have, but present-day residents make do.

Many other municipalities established with great hope in the 1800s, however, withered and died, or died aborning, no matter whether they had a grid or not.

As John W. Reps explains in his monumental 1979 work Cities of the American West: A History of Frontier Urban Planning—the subject of my March 20 essay “Long Books for the Long Hours Ahead”—it was easy for any go-getter to found a new town. And there was money to be made by selling off some of the lots before heading off with the profits to new enterprises. As Reps wrote:

“Speculators were quick to seize the opportunity to dabble in the founding of cities. The costs of such ventures were modest, and to advertise one needed only to pay for notices in the newspapers and for printed plats to be hung in hotel lobbies, real estate offices, and boat landings.”

“On paper”

In his 1867 book Beyond the Mississippi, Albert Richardson, a journalist and biographer of Ulysses S. Grant, opined that

“on paper, all these towns were magnificent. Their superbly lithographed maps adorned the walls of every place of resort.  The stranger studying one of them [for New Babylon, Kansas] fancied the New Babylon surpassed only by its namesake of old.  Its great parks, opera-houses, churches, universities, railway depots and steamboat landings made New York and St. Louis insignificant in comparison.”


Utopia: “New Babylon, Kansas Ter. ” Plan of city on paper. REPS, MAKING OF URBAN AMERICA, fig. 218.


At this point in his book, he inserted a copy of that map, titled “The City of New Babylon on Paper.”  He then went on to say that, if a potential investor actually went to the site, he’d be likely to discover, in most cases, “one or two rough cabins, with perhaps a tent and an Indian canoe on the river in front of the ‘levee.’” And he offered an illustration titled “The City of New Babylon in Fact.”



And it wasn’t just the speculators who were willing to cut a few ethical corners to make a sale. Reps tells the story of the three-member commission who, in 1867, were assigned by the Nebraska legislature to establish the state capital in Lincoln but were having trouble selling the new city’s real estate.

“The commissioners resorted to an old trick of private town speculators: rigging the bidding to make it appear that Lincoln town lots were in substantial demand.”

They got allies to make bids on the lots, driving up the price, and, after five days of sales, netted $35,000, the equivalent of more than $600,000 today. Eventually, the sale of land in Lincoln brought in $300,000 for the state, or $5.2 million in present-day dollars.

Caveat emptor

Certainly, when it came to lots in newly platted towns, it was always a case of buyer beware. In fact, in the single county of Cass in Nebraska, so many sure-fire towns failed to thrive that, in 1938, the Nebraska State Historical Society drew up a map showing the locations of 64 ghost towns there.

By contrast, the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints weren’t speculators. Starting with their martyred founder Joseph Smith and especially under the direction of Brigham Young, the Mormons created towns as a means to create religious communities.

This was also a strategy employed to embed their people and faith in Utah and the nearby region throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, by 1900, that area was filled with at least 500 villages and cities founded by the religious leaders.

“A crude but workable community”

One type of town that was rarely planned in its initial stages of settlement was the mining camp which grew into existence overnight as prospectors flooded into the area of a recent strike of gold or another precious metal. It was an anarchic and seemingly every-man-for-himself world.  Yet, Reps points out that the need for organization amid the chaos was imposed with surprising rapidity:

“What is remarkable is that these mining camps, which sprang up overnight in a region without civil government, populated by persons who were utter strangers, and whose inhabitants were motivated solely by the desire to enrich themselves soon evolved their own effective system of local government.

“A crude but workable form of community law and administration provided the basis for adjudicating conflicting mining claims, raising funds for supplying public services, dealing with criminals, and providing other functions necessary for community existence.

“The popular view of mining camps as lawless, brawling, rough and disorderly, while not entirely incorrect, ignores an important achievement in self-government.”

At the same time, a city might seem to be well on its way to urban tranquility when an event would occur as a reminder of its earlier rawness, such as in Seattle.

Reps points out that a city historian, writing in 1890, crowed about the way, during the previous decade, the local moneymen had “built warehouses, graded streets, planned the erection of a big hotel, and a pretentious opera house,” showing how “Seattle was in the midst of its transition from a frontier town to a great commercial city.”

Nonetheless, Reps adds drily:

“The transition was not quite complete, for, as [the historian] recalled, ‘in the very midst of this business activity, three murderers were lynched in the public square.’”

“At your service!”

The cities of the West with their street grids and warehouses and opera houses were very much like the cities of the East.  One reason for that: Many of the items that were used in creating a new town came from back East—even houses.

Writing in 1868, Louis Simonin, a French mining engineer, visited the newly platted Cheyenne, Wyoming, and commented on the stores with ready-made clothing, as well as the town’s book shops, the printing shops, the restaurants, hotels and two newspapers. And not only that:

“Houses arrive by the hundreds from Chicago, already made, I was about to say, all furnished, in the style, dimensions, and arrangements you might wish. Houses are made to order in Chicago, as in Paris clothes are made to order at the Belle Jardinière. Enter. Do you want a palace, a cottage, a city or country home; do you want it in Doric, Tuscan, or Corinthian; of one or two stories, an attic, Mansard gables? Here you are! At your service!”

“Two frontier lines”

In Cities of the American West, Reps deals with many of the same issues that he handled in two earlier major works, The Making of Urban America (1965) and Town Planning in Frontier America (1969).  One topic, though, is new: the frontier.

In 1893, at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, Frederick Jackson Turner, a young historian, made a name for himself when he pointed out that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation no longer had a frontier—that, except for scattered gaps, small and large, settlement had filled much of the West.  As a result, he argued, the first phase of United States history had come to an end.  No longer could Americans, uncomfortable in their present location, simply pick up and move ever westward to new and possibly more amenable surroundings.

As Turner saw it, the pioneers led the way, and the town-builders came later.  But, as Reps shows in his 827-page book, that’s not what happened.

The town-planners were, he asserts, the spearheads of human settlement in the wilderness.  Communities would be plotted and planned, and organizers would do whatever they could to entice settlers to their sites. The lucky ones succeeded. Indeed, Reps writes:

“In the American settlement of California, the Pacific Northwest, and Utah, the western frontier had leaped over the Great Plains, and by the middle of the nineteenth century there were in reality two frontier lines.

“One pushing slowly eastward from the Pacific Coast, while the other extended along the western borders of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas.  Shortly after midcentury, this older frontier line would once again begin to advance.”

Until, finally, by 1890, the two lines had come close enough to each other that they ceased being lines.

Real estate speculators, religious leaders, railroads, mining companies and, in most cases, the street grid had drawn pioneers from the eastern half of the nation and from the Pacific coast, and had filled in what had once been a vast wilderness.

Patrick T. Reardon
Patrick T. Reardon

Patrick T. Reardon is a Chicago historian, essayist, poet and writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years. He is the author of nine books including the forthcoming The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press).

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