Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The City of Seven (Three) Hills (Ridges)

Apparently, #513Day is a thing now. In case you didn't know today is 5/13 and Cincinnati's area code is 513. So Happy 513 Day Cincinnati.
Now pardon me while I pull out my wet blanket.
Cincinnati is often referred to as the City of Seven Hills. No one can agree on a definitive list. What is the origin of this nickname? I'm sorry to report that there is no such thing. It's made up. Sorry.

1938 Cincinnati book
Let's review some geology! 
Cincinnati doesn't even have hills. Technically they are ridges.
The city of Cincinnati is in a peneplain, a plain carved out by the ancient Teays River millions of years ago. This plain is surrounded by three ridges. The high points of these ridges are nearly all the same height and seem like hills from downtown Cincinnati. The city is actually in a valley. The Ohio River Valley. They just look like hills when viewed from the lower elevation of the Downtown area.

Let's review some history!
Northwest Territory Governor Arthur St. Clair re-named Losantiville to Cincinnati in 1790 after the Society of the Cincinnati, a veterans club tribute to George Washington named after the Roman farmer-leader-farmer Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. By the early 19th century Cincinnati was a growing metropolis, eager to draw new citizens and business. The steamboat era was in full swing and the Miami & Erie Canal had just been completed. The city was the gateway to the Mississippi and all points beyond. Cincinnati's location made it a major thoroughfare for commerce and travel. The population of Cincinnati went from 2,500 in 1810 to over 100,000 by 1850. In short, it was a boom-town. It seems likely that someone decided Cincinnati had Seven Hills just like Rome simply as a nod to the origin of the city's name. This reference didn't even show up until June 1853 in a periodical called Bickley's West American Review. By 1860 the population was at 160,000.

Now back to the "seven hills" themselves...
The Cincinnati area now has over a dozen places with the term "Mount", "Heights" or "Hill" but it wasn't always this way. Some "hills" have changed names over the years or have been combined into one name.
An obvious thing to do is go back to the original list. As I said before, no one mentioned "Seven Hills" until 1853 over a half-century after Cincinnati's founding. This 1853 list is also strange because it includes College Hill way to the North. In 1881, someone came up with a new list. By then there were different hill names as the city expanded even more. Oddly the 1881 list replaces College Hill with Mount Lookout way over to the East. By the 20th and 21st century we had updated lists.
Six basic "hills" seem to be common in all of the era's but if you ask me the best list is from the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1958. That list hugs around those three ridges just perfectly. They can all be easily observed from the point of view of the downtown area.

  1. Mount Adams
  2. Walnut Hills
  3. Mount Auburn
  4. Clifton Heights
  5. Fairview Heights
  6. Fairmount
  7. Price Hill
A terrain map makes this more apparent:

On the terrain map, you can see the flat plain at the bend north of the Ohio River and the three ridges to the Northeast, North, and Northwest. (click on the icon in the upper left of the map to see the different layers with the different hills mentioned in 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.)
I'll agree that the City of Three Ridges doesn't have the same panache as the Romanesque sounding City of Seven Hills and this myth will never die. That's OK. We know the truth.
Now feel free to make your own list and argue with a lifelong resident about it.

other sources:
-Digging Cincinnati History
-Cincinnati Enquirer March 18 2012
-Cincinnati Magazine May 1985