Boom Towns

The popular image of the historic “boom town” is often based upon the motion picture industry’s depiction of an isolated and violent Wild West settlement. Nineteenth-century mining and cattle towns grew so uncontrollably that they were seen as conflict-ridden settlements with few public amenities and haphazard planning. The local mentality was exploitative: “Get all you can get, get it as fast as you can, and get out.” These towns flourished briefly, then died quickly, leaving broken buildings and few people.

While many boom towns across the country fit this characterization, some industrial boom towns were carefully planned and experienced well-managed growth. A great many boom towns fell in between. They grew very suddenly, often because of land speculation or the discovery of natural resources, but they also witnessed a semblance of planning, community, and, most important, persistent, durable growth that prevented them from becoming ghost towns. In the twentieth century, the trend continued, especially after World War II, when private and public authorities sought to build suburban “new towns” as a way to ameliorate urbanization.

The Land Ordinance of 1785 spurred the initial boomtown settlements in eastern Ohio, and speculators in both farm and town lots flooded the Ohio Valley in the 1790s. At the fork of a river or along important roadways, speculators planned cities with attractive street patterns, town squares, and public buildings. They enthusiastically promoted their schemes back east and attracted emigrants. While many of these paper towns were simply means of defrauding settlers, some, like Cincinnati and Zanesville, developed as brisk trading centers and grew rapidly.

The rapid growth of manufacturing after 1815 spurred city development around the cotton mills of New England. One of the best-known examples was Lowell, Massachusetts. Within years, 25 factories sprang up there, and 15,000 inhabitants occupied the town. Developers not only manufactured textiles for profit, but they also engaged in land speculation and sold individual town lots for enormous profits.

The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 opened the Great Lakes region to settlers. Along the canal route in western New York, raucous and sometimes violent cities sprang up overnight at lock sites that attracted Irish laborers by the thousands and brought many new towns instant prosperity.

The nation’s most extensive land boom to date took place in the western Great Lakes when Andrew Jackson destroyed the Bank of the United States and redistributed federal funds to state banks in the early 1830s. Hundreds of speculators bought cheap government land with paper money and laid out future cities in most unlikely places. Maps were carefully printed showing hotels, docks, public buildings, schools, and pleasant homes. While in most places little on-site development actually occurred, some communities grew quickly. Chicago, Saginaw, and Grand Rapids all originated as speculative real estate schemes. Jackson’s suspension of the use of paper money to pay for public lands ended the speculative boom in 1837. Overnight, lots in boom towns were worthless.

Early boom towns were often the essential force identified with rapid settlement of the Old Northwest. As the editor of the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel wrote on May 26, 1845, “In no other country have towns and villages sprung up so suddenly as in this. Cities grow up here to more importance in ten years than they do in Europe in a century.”

Speculators were not only largely responsible for making “every town a boom town,” but they also drew upon eastern experience in confronting city problems and planning urban growth. Most Midwest boom towns escaped the violence and lawlessness of Far West communities. These towns repeated patterns set in the development of older cities. Lines of social distinction were established, and urban amenities like schools, churches, newspapers, and theaters developed that reflected eastern culture and political practice.

Natural-resource towns sprang up in the second half of the nineteenth century. Iron- and copper-mining towns in the northern Great Lakes, like Calumet, Michigan, and Hibbing, Minnesota, and lumber towns like Saginaw and Bay City, Michigan, and Hurley, Wisconsin, grew rapidly as thousands of immigrants flocked in to work the mines or sawmills. At the same time, in the gold and silver country of Arizona, California, and the Rocky Mountains, mining camps were the primary form of boom-town settlement. Western settlements were often disposable towns, called “rag cities,” because they were mainly tents, a store or two, and several saloons and brothels.

Largely composed of male workers, they had their share of lawlessness, especially in their formative years, but their reputations for rowdiness were often exaggerated. Lumber towns and mining boom towns were frequently company-owned and strictly regulated or governed paternalistically. Miners in the West themselves quickly created ad hoc courts that awarded claims, resolved disputes, and held criminal proceedings. Order was generally maintained (although some “order” resembled lynch law), and schools, churches, and opera houses were built.

Western cattle towns also sprang up overnight along the cattle trade routes leading from Texas to Kansas and Colorado. Towns like Abilene, Wichita, and Dodge City all served as shipping points for cattle being driven north. Cow towns developed a reputation for violence and lawlessness as hundreds of dusty, rowdy cowboys sought recreation in these towns after weeks or months on the trail. City officials often quarantined the vice by keeping the cowboys, saloons, brothels, and gambling halls in a separate area.

Once the cattle trade moved on or natural resources ran out, boom towns frequently became ghost towns. However, many also acquired stability when new industries were brought in, farms and railroads developed nearby, or industrial mining operations sank shafts to mine ore deep beneath the surface of the land.

Company-owned industrial towns began to emerge in the late nineteenth century. The typical town was an isolated community located on the outskirts of a nearby city where land was cheap, taxes low, and managers could exert firm control over the workforce. By 1901, several planned industrial communities like Pullman, Illinois, and Gary, Indiana, blossomed overnight. In the West, company-owned towns sprang up in the lumber industry and in copper and coal mining. All property, commercial services, housing, recreation, and utilities were owned by the company in towns like Morenci and Ajo, Arizona.

Paternalism existed in varying degrees in these towns. Employees who lived in well-regulated, tailor-made communities, like Pullman and Calumet, sometimes precipitated violent strikes to protest rigid management of their daily lives. Still, the grasping, company image in these boom towns has been overstated. Residents frequently cooperated with the company to better the community and took pride in keeping their homes and yards attractive and maintaining city pride.

After natural resources, the next great shaper of boom towns was the automobile. Making and operating cars required steel, glass, rubber, and gasoline. New industries formed, others expanded, and old and new towns grew too quickly for managed growth. Places like Flint, Detroit, Dearborn, Akron, and Gary exploded in the 1920s. Forty-one percent of the new-town residents were foreign-born. Shanty towns, much like the “rag towns” of the Old West, appeared, and water and air pollution became widespread. Homes were strewn helter-skelter along muddy, unpaved streets. Only gradually, after the Depression, did rows of frame houses with porches, lawns, and backyards replace the ugliness of boom towns brought on by the automobile era.

The automobile itself also created a kind of boom town. Some, like Los Angeles, sprang up because the car not only brought people west but essentially enabled the spread-out city to exist. The auto allowed new towns to develop as planned and unplanned suburban communities. Thousands of these communities appeared on the American landscape after World War II. These “packaged suburbs” were often planned by government (like the greenbelt towns of the New Deal); organized by builders (like the Levittowns in Pennsylvania and New York); or built by land developers (like Columbia, Maryland, or Reston, Virginia). Boom towns continue to develop in the Sunbelt and Rocky Mountain states because of recreational opportunities, new technological industries, and casino gambling.
Although the boom-town experience was often short-lived, residents of boom towns characteristically displayed a feeling of optimism and hope for the future. At the outset, boom towns were often chaotic as they experienced rapid, inconvenient growth and development. The people learned to tolerate necessary adjustments as well as a host of different newcomers. Often seeking an escape from the rapid changes of urban society, residents of boom towns brought with them a conservatism that resisted fundamental change. For the most part, boom towns transplanted the traditional cultures and institutional structures of prior experiences. A few survived the boom-town experience, especially when new industries or technology were located there, but most boom towns, if they did not become ghost towns, clung to traditional institutional patterns and very quickly imitated older, established communities.

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