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What if ... With strong ties to expansion, Marietta was a contender to be a new nation’s capital city

April 5, 2013
Marietta Times
By Tom Hrach The Marietta Times

Marietta may be a sleepy small town on the Ohio River, but if some enterprising early pioneers had had their way the city would now be home to some of the most powerful institutions in the world.

Washington, D.C., home to the White House, Congress, the Pentagon and the U.S. Supreme Court, is the center of influence and power in the modern world. But back in the late 1780s when the nation was debating where to put the capital, the site of Washington, D.C., was just a humid swampy area on the Potomac River while Marietta was a burgeoning frontier town bustling with the anticipation of future development.

While the historical data is sketchy, at least one author of a history of Washington, D.C., gives Marietta’s claim some credence. That is a claim that no other city in Ohio can make, not even Chillicothe or Zanesville, both of which were former capitals of Ohio, and not Columbus, which as everyone knows is the current Ohio capital.

Kenneth Bowling author of “The Creation of Washington D.C: The Idea and Location of the American Capital,” a 1991 book about the founding of the capital city, says Marietta was one of the seven contenders back in the 1780s to become the nation’s capital.

What’s interesting about that is that Marietta was not even founded until 1788. But even prior to the pioneers landing at the Muskingum River, one of those pioneers, Manasseh Cutler, was promoting Marietta as a potential capital. Marietta was on the frontier of an expanding nation, and the new nation’s leaders were looking for a brand new place to start the capital city.

A new town on the cusp of westward expansion was not that far-fetched of an idea. There were people who believed the capital should not be located on the populated on the East Coast’s major cities. Some believed the frontier was a better option because it would be better protected from foreign invaders. But a frontier location for the capital still must be accessible, and in the 1780s the best locations were all located on rivers. Marietta was in a prime location along the Ohio River.

Bowling writes on Page 12 of his book: “In 1787, Manasseh Cutler ... argued publicly that the seat of empire belonged on the Ohio River. He urged Congress to postpone action until the claims of the Ohio could merit serious discussion.”

Local historian Louise Zimmer said she was unaware of the fact that Marietta was considered, but she was aware that Cutler was a person who was influential and persuasive at that time.

“Being the silver-tongued orator that he was, I’m surprised he didn’t get his way,” Zimmer said.

Congress ultimately chose a wilderness location, albeit one on the East Coast, when it chose a site along the Potomac River for the new capital. But it is important to note that there was nothing at the site of Washington, D.C., in 1788, but there was at least a foundation for a city in Marietta.

Marietta’s claim as a city once considered for the capital also made it in a May 22, 2000, Washington Post article that discussed the 200th anniversary of Washington, D.C. Other cities under consideration, according to the article, were Baltimore, Columbia, Pa., Georgetown, Md., Kingston, N.Y., Norfolk, Va., and Trenton, N.J.

So if the nation’s capital had been located in Marietta, what would the town now be like?

For one thing, you could forget about getting from Reno to Harmar Hill in less than 15 minutes. For another, there would be security galore due to the threat of terrorist attacks. And for another, there probably would be plenty more crime, money and taxicabs.

“I think it’s something that people ought to know about. I think it’s something to be proud of,” said Betty Carr of 400 Edgewood Drive, Marietta, who wrote about the historical fact after a friend sent her The Washington Post article.

“But in a way I’m glad it was not chosen because I enjoy the small-town atmosphere,” Carr said.

That is the sentiment of many longtime Mariettans who say that being the nation’s capital may have brought international fame, status and prestige, but it also would have meant Marietta would be nothing like it is today.

“Even though we were not chosen, it is quite an honor to have even been considered,” Zimmer said. “But if we had been chosen, things certainly would have been different. I don’t think any of us, however, are too sorry we were not chosen.”

 
 

 

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