Cincinnati was once the largest city and most important trading hub in the western lands. The canal system linked the city to the Great Lakes and farmland throughout Ohio; and steamboats connected it to river cities from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Hogs, whiskey, furniture, carriages, and beer were among the most common commodities to be produced in Cincinnati, traded here, or to pass through on their way to markets along the river and up the Eastern seaboard. It became a city of very rapid expansion and almost limitless opportunity. This made Cincinnati a frequent destination for native-born Americans as well as newly arriving German and Irish immigrants who were looking for a better life in the American west.
The Miami & Erie Canal followed a route through Cincinnati that is now marked by Central Parkway, traveling from beside the Mill Creek at Cumminsville down to a sharp bend at Plum St., then veering south on what is now Eggleston to reach the riverfront. The portion of the canal that ran east-west from Plum to Eggleston roughly cut the downtown basin in half. In 1828, when this portion of the canal was completed, virtually all of the developed city stopped south of the canal. The area north of it was largely gardens and farmland. The transformation of a small river town into the Queen City of the West corresponded with early waves of German and Irish immigration (more German than Irish.) While the Irish stuck relatively close to the waterfront, the Germans started settling in the area north of the canal. This farmland was transformed into a bustling neighborhood in a very short period of time, and the concentration of German immigrants gave it a very German feel. German was spoken in the streets. German church congregations and German-language newspapers arose. The area started to feel so distinctly European that many Cincinnatians referred to the people living south of the canal as “the Americans” and their fellow Cincinnatians north of the canal as “the Germans.” This gave the Miami & Erie Canal the nickname “Rhine” in reference to Germany’s Rhine River. Crossing over the canal into the German section of town became known as “going over the Rhine.”
Cincinnati’s early brewers were predominately English, Scottish, and French. By the 1850s, German-Americans had changed this. German lager beer became the drink of choice for Cincinnati, and Cincinnatians consumed copious amounts of it in saloons and Over-the-Rhine’s famous beer gardens. By the late 1800s, there were over a dozen breweries in or near the boarders of Over-the-Rhine that were producing hundreds of thousands of barrels of German-style lager beer; and Over-the-Rhine was home to almost 300 saloons. (By contrast, today there are currently fewer than 170 full liquor licenses issued in the entire City of Cincinnati.)
As roads to the hilltops started to improve in the 1860s and the incline planes started opening in the 1870s, many residents of Over-the-Rhine who could afford to leave the cramped, dirty, raucousness of the basin moved up the hills. Even as this occurred, Over-the-Rhine remained the center of Cincinnati’s German-American community. It became renowned and infamous as a German-flavored entertainment district. But all of this ended with dual blows struck to Over-the-Rhine’s culture and economy by WWI (1917) and Prohibition (1919.)
Over-the-Rhine eventually lost its German-American identity. Its demographics changed. It became increasingly impoverished and neglected. The story of Over-the-Rhine does not end with the people who built it, but almost all of the neighborhood’s remaining building stock was constructed between roughly 1830 and the start of WWI. Socially, Over-the-Rhine has changed dramatically, but physically it remains the German-American neighborhood that it once was.
A history of historic German Over-the-Rhine can be found in “Over-the-Rhine: When Beer Was King,” by Michael D. Morgan and for a guide to OTR, see “Over-the-Rhine Tour Guide: Cincinnati’s Historic German District and Environs,” by Don Heinrich Tolzmann.
A map of remaining Over-the-Rhine brewery buildings can be found at the Brewery District’s Website.