Carl Abbott is Professor Emeritus of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University and author of Imagining Urban Futures: Cities in Science Fiction and What We Might Learn from Them (Wesleyan University Press, 2016)
William Gilpin’s big idea in the late 1800s would have made Denver the crossroads of the world—the place where “the zodiac of nations closes its circle.”
Where should we look for the “focal point of impregnable power in the topographical configuration of the continent?”
The answer would be 1701 Wynkoop Street in Denver, the address of the city’s Union Station. At least according to 19th century politician and promoter William Gilpin.
China has recently taken the initiative in geopolitical maneuvering with a massive Belt and Road Initiative that aims to place Shanghai and the Pearl River supercity at the center of the world economy. Announced by President Xi Jinping in 2013, the Silk Road Economic Belt promises to enhance China’s land links to Central Asia, Europe, and the Middle East; its companion Maritime Silk Road aims to expand Chinese maritime connections through the Indian Ocean. Together the plans make an impressive splash when superimposed on a map of Eurasia.
A dozen decades earlier, Gilpin offered an even grander scheme in a 369-page treatise, The Cosmopolitan Railway: Compacting and Fusing Together All the World’s Continents (1890). He was nothing if not ambitious. A single continuous railroad would run from New York to Denver, reach up to Alaska, span the Bering Strait, and plunge across Asia to terminate in Liverpool. To touch all the bases, branches would snake into South America, Australia, and Africa. It was all very practical, he said, supported by burgeoning international commerce. “Bridging the Bering Strait by way of the Diomede Islands,” he assured readers, “is by no means a difficult achievement.” He had maps showing why the midlands of America would dominate the world, and how his home city of Denver would be the very center and node for the American half of the cosmopolitan railway.
This was an era of technological optimism and railroad visionaries. The Canadian Pacific Railway spanned Canada in 1885, seeding the future of Vancouver as a world city. James J. Hill would complete the Great Northern Railway to Seattle in 1893. The Trans-Siberian Railroad was in the planning stages, and Cecil Rhodes was pushing the imperial vision of a Cape to Cairo railroad. Coming close to the imaginative sweep of the Cosmopolitan Railway was Spanish architect Arturo Soria y Mata’s contemporary idea for a vast linear city built around a railroad from Cadiz to St. Petersburg.
Gilpin had been pitching the superiority of Denver for 30 years. He belonged to the particular breed of American visionaries who read the future of an urban nation directly off the map. Two ideas intersected. One was Alexander von Humboldt’s idea of isothermal climate belts that circle the globe at different latitudes. The natural conditions of each zone set the parameters for social and economic development, and the most superior opportunities followed the 40th north parallel. Perched like beads on this axis were the capitals of past empires—Constantinople, Athens, Rome, Madrid—to be followed inevitably by Denver as empire took its westward course.
Gilpin’s second idea was his take on North America itself. As a young man he had explored the American West with John C. Fremont and Stephen Kearny. While based in Kansas City he learned about the Colorado gold discoveries of 1859 and quickly turned out The Central Gold Region: The Grain, Pastoral, and Gold Region of North America. Abraham Lincoln dispatched him to the tiny new town of Denver in 1861 as the first appointed governor of Colorado Territory. He held the job only a year, just long enough to get his name on Colorado’s smallest county, before turning to real estate speculation and big picture thinking.
The key idea of The Central Gold Region (revised and reissued in 1873 as The Mission of the North American People) was the superiority of American geography. Europe and Asia were fragmented continents broken up by massive central mountains that cut population into small pockets and blocked invigorating commerce. Convexity, isolation, and disharmony marred the older world. In contrast, North America’s vast interior was single great valley drained by the rivers of the Mississippi-Missouri-Ohio and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence systems. The continent was “an expanded concave bowl, to receive and fuse into harmony whatsoever enters within its rim.” Within this “amphitheater of the world,” Colorado’s position was “preeminently cosmopolitan.” Railroads would make Denver the place where the Atlantic and Pacific world met, the crossroads of the world where “the zodiac of nations closes its circle.” Gilpin included quite beautiful maps of North American river basins with the vast central valley unmistakable.
Gilpin wasn’t the only Denverite with great expectations. Journalist Julian Ralph noted in 1895 that many residents had adopted a thousand-mile theory, “which is that Chicago is 1,000 miles from New York, and Denver is 1,000 miles from Chicago, and San Francisco is 1,000 miles from Denver, so that, as anyone can see… these are to be the four great cities of America.”
Denver’s railroad history turned out not quite like Gilipin hoped. The city’s most important early line, the Denver and Rio Grande, ran north-south, helping to cement a Rocky Mountain Empire that stretched from the mountains of Montana to the mesas of New Mexico. The map of the Cosmopolitan Railway hypothetically extended this axis thousands of miles further into South America. The westward connection was harder, because very tall mountains stand in the way, and Denver didn’t get the direct western connection that Gilpin anticipated until Denver taxpayers funded the Moffat Tunnel under the Front Range in the 1920s. A century later, the Denver hinterland and megaregion still follow the old north-south axis.
Gilpin’s mistake was to underestimate the breadth of the American urban system and the nation’s capacity to support a multitude of mid-continent cities. Denver is part of a constellation of cities, sharing its nodal functions with Dallas and Kansas City (which both got Federal Reserve banks in 1914 while Denver was left out), with Omaha, Oklahoma City, and others. Today, we depend on international airline alliances rather than a cosmopolitan railway to realize Gilpin’s hope of making “the whole world one community.”