The small town of Metropolis in southern Illinois is known largely for sharing its name with city where Superman lives in the DC Comics universe. Metropolis has a population of under 6,500 people, but it has gained notoriety as the “Hometown of Superman”, complete with a Superman Museum and a statue of the Man of Steel in the city center. However, during the early history of the United States, Metropolis, Illinois could have been famous for something far greater than a quirky tourist attraction. Had one proposal been followed, Metropolis could have been the capital of the United States.
Why would the United States move the capital from the District of Columbia? Well, when the US became independent, the District was created as a compromise location for the capital between the northern and southern states. Its central location, and the inclusion of the two port cities of Georgetown and Alexandria in the district, meant it was an efficient location from where to administer the nation’s affairs. Of course, the United States at the time was composed of only states on the Atlantic coast. As the country expanded west, Washington became further and further away from the geographical and population center of the country. With the admission of states west of the Mississippi River, it could take months to travel from the Atlantic coast to the frontier states. Even as railroads were growing, the transit time from New York to Saint Louis was still about three weeks. After California gained statehood in 1849, the idea of moving the capital city west to a more central location began to gain traction. Moving the capital inland would also make it less vulnerable to attack; a lesson that was learned the hard way in the War of 1812 when a British force sailed up the Potomac and burned a large part of Washington, DC.
We know little of the proposal to create a “Western District of Columbia” out of Metropolis beyond an 1850 map of the proposal, but the map does show enough reason why it would be a good location. The town of Metropolis is located along the Ohio River between where the Tennessee flows into the Ohio and where the Ohio joins the Mississippi. This location near the confluence of so many rivers made the location a strategic defensive point early in the European settlement of the Midwest. Fort Massac was established by the French in the 1700s as an outpost between Saint Louis and New Orleans. The fort was abandoned after the French and Indian War divided French possessions between the Spanish and British. The United States began moving into the area soon after gaining independence as settlers founded towns along the Ohio, and Fort Massac was rebuilt in 1794. The fort was abandoned after the War of 1812 when the area no longer needed defensive structures, but Metropolis was founded shortly thereafter on the site.
During the first half of the 19th century when rail travel was in its infancy, rivers and canals were still the fastest mode of transport for going long distances. This made Metropolis an ideal point for a potential capital for the United States as western expansion intensified as it lay near the intersection of many of the country’s great rivers. The town itself is on the Ohio. Shortly upstream are where the Cumberland, Tennessee, and Wabash rivers. Forty miles downstream is where the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi, connecting two of the mightiest rivers in the United States. Such a central location along the largest navigable river network on the continent would have made it a prime location for a budding political and economic center.
However, the proposal came about in 1850, after much of the Northeast had an extensive rail network. The map does take this into account, putting Metropolis at the midpoint of a trunk railway connecting the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico between Chicago and New Orleans. With the fast growth of both cities during the early 19th century, it would have only cemented Metropolis’ central location if it became the capital of the United States.
So how would a capital city located in the middle of the country instead of Washington affect the country’s history? Firstly, with the Civil War looming on the horizon, Metropolis, DC would put a larger emphasis on the
Western and Trans-mississippi theaters of the war. It would also place more importance for the North in ensuring that Missouri, Kentucky, and possibly Tennessee remain in the Union. However, assuming Missouri and Kentucky do stay in the Union, Metropolis would be in a much less vulnerable position than Washington was.
Outside the immediate consequences, a more geographically central capital could bring much faster settlement of the Great Plains, and even shift the demographic center from the Northeast to the Midwest earlier on. With the Mississippi and its branches serving as a grand transportation system, Metropolis, DC would grow quickly as the hub of that system, and the cities around it would also grow. Saint Louis would likely become as large as it did historically – it was the country’s 4th largest city in 1910 – but with the Mississippi River region as a whole experiencing such growth, its population might not peak in 1950 and drop with other Rust Belt cities. Additionally, nearby cities such as Paducah, Kentucky, Cairo, Illinois, and Evansville, Indiana might grow larger and more important to support federal institutions, as much of northern Virginia has today.
Moving the capital of the United States to Metropolis would also create a big shift in the politics of the nation. A move from the political center of the country from the east coast to the American heartland would potentially negate many complaints from the interior of the country that DC considers them unimportant, and remove the ties that Washington has in our history with the perceived east coast elite. It would also likely bring agricultural policy much more into the forefront of the political arena having major farm states like Missouri and Iowa being so close to the capital. The central location of the capital might also make Midwestern and south central states like Tennessee and Missouri more influential in the political sphere in the late 19th and early 20th century. In our history, 9 out of the 13 presidents between Illinois’s Ulysses S. Grant and Missouri’s Harry Truman were from either New York or Ohio. If Metropolis had become the capital of the US, you might see a lot more presidents and nationally prominent politicians from the Midwest during those decades and the region as a whole would continue to be influential into the modern day.