The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands from the Articles of Confederation to the New Deal

By Everett Dick | Go to book overview
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XVI

Town Building on the Public Lands

FROM THE BEGINNING of the public lands system, certain locations on government land stood out as particularly desirable for nonagricultural uses. It was obvious to the discerning that towns would be located at strategic points and that a break in transportation was certain to promote town growth. For example, the falls of the Ohio made it necessary to unload and reload flatboats or, in time of low water, to wait for a rise in order to navigate the falls; and taverns, inns, stores, blacksmith shops, and places of amusement soon were built nearby to accommodate the public. The resultant city which grew up at that point was Louisville, Kentucky. Another prospective townsite was near a ford on a road that crossed a wide stream, and where in floodtime people were compelled to camp until the water subsided. And it was likely a town would develop at a point where a road crossed a stream that was too deep to ford and where there was a sloping bank to accommodate a ferry landing, as at Council Bluffs.

A good harbor on a lake, as at Milwaukee or Kenosha, Wisconsin, was certain to stimulate urban growth. Similarly, a town could be expected to rise at the confluence of two rivers, as at Kansas City, where the Kansas River meets the Missouri, and at Sioux City, where the Big Sioux River flows into the Missouri.

The discovery of mineral deposits was certain to tempt promoters to build a town nearby. The first settlement on the site of Lincoln, Nebraska, came about through the belief that the salt deposits in the vicinity would be developed into a basic industry. In this case, however, urban growth was delayed until two other factors came into being: designation of the town as the county seat and later as the state capital. A millsite, as at Black River Falls in Wisconsin, or a site near a spring of sufficient volume to furnish water for a frontier town, as at Huntsville, Alabama, also were sought for urban development. The new canals, with their series of locks,

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