Traveling with Twain

In Search of America's Identity

Cincinnati: A city of immigrants and free African Americans

Dan uses the interactive daguerreotype display at the Cincinnati Public Library

For the two hours we have to spend in Cincinnati we focus on food and a photo.

The photo, an amazing 1848 daguerreotype view from across the Ohio River, details two miles of the Cincinnati waterfront where eight years later Mark Twain would begin his career as a riverboat pilot. Sixty steamboats dot the eight daguerreotype plates shot by William S. Porter and Charles Fontayne.

The original plates, each 6 ½ inches by 8 ¼ inches, are on display in the third-floor Cincinnati room of the city’s 800 Vine Street main library. On the first floor the plates have been enlarged by digital-age microscopy equipment and merged into a photo mural about 30 feet long.

At both locations high-definition versions on giant touch screens allow you to zoom in on details of the panorama—for example, bloomers drying on a balcony clothesline in a pre-electric-washing-machine age. A pop-up explains that clothes washing “was a grueling daylong task performed weekly in most homes.”

Cincinnati’s critics described it as a boring burg. Frances Trollope said Cincinnatians lived “without amusement.” Twain is quoted as saying (though the quote cannot be authenticated): “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always 20 years behind the times.” But the daguerreotype view shows a bustling city, certainly not behind the times. Anticipating the end of steamboats the panorama shows the new passenger depot of the Little Miami Railroad.

The Sunday afternoon image captures an urban center populated by Irish and German immigrants (half the city’s population were foreign-born) and free African Americans. Eighty percent of the city’s African Americans—the nation’s third largest black population by 1850—worked as riverboat deck hand, roustabouts, stewards, cooks or maids.

For food, we traveled to Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, a revitalized historic district remembered for its riots a decade ago. Joe’s Diner at 1203 Sycamore Street features an old chrome dining car with an interior in pink, silver and black, a wall clock stuck at 3:37, a disc machine that plays Elvis Presley and pink neon lights.

Joe's Diner, in Cincinnati's historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood

Open 9 a.m. to 4 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, the diner offers “I Love Lucy” on a TV screen behind the counter and breakfast at all hours. For lunch, Dan (fish and chips) and Alyssa (Caesar salad) order sensibly. I choose “Over the Rhine”: two eggs over easy, two bacon strips, two sausage links, hash browns and two pumpkin pancakes.

But even I don’t attempt “Shadeau’s Big Bite” $19.99 challenge, a three-pound burger with big-bite fries. If you eat Shadeau’s Big Bite in 30 minutes or less it’s free.

Loren Ghiglione

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