The Manufacturing Core

United States Geography

Manufacturing is an important economic activity in the United States. The evidence of this is everywhere--in articles of clothing, items of preserved food, residential structures, means of transport and communication, and many other things. In spite of the presence of items manufactured outside the country, domestic industry remains paramount, and it is rare for any medium-sized U.S. town to be without at least some local employment in manufacturing.

The northeastern United States, excluding northern New England, is the country's single most significant region of manufacturing. This region is loosely defined on three sides by the Ohio River Valley, Megalopolis, and the southern Great Lakes. The western margin of the region is less clear; it blends gradually with agriculture-dominant landscapes across southern Indiana, Illinois, and beyond.

In spite of the region's moderate extent and the growth of manufacturing elsewhere, the Manufacturing Core continues to be of tremendous economic significance in American geography. Its factories produce most of the country's steel, as well as a significant percentage of its motor vehicles and motor vehicle parts. Most of the important ports, the main centers of communication, and the primary financial centers are within or near the region, and the country's political capital is on the immediate margins.

The region includes the two largest clusters of coalescing metropolitan areas: Megalopolis, and the group of large urban regions between Milwaukee (Wisconsin) and Chicago (Illinois) on the west, and Cleveland (Ohio) and Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) on the east.

Understanding America's Manufacturing Core is made difficult by its strongly dual character. In many respects, it was the vitality and productivity of the territory's farm population that created the resources and the demand for industrial production. Success in agriculture supported the region's early market centers, and it was the gradual mechanization of agriculture that demanded diversified manufacturing support. Mechanical reapers, winnowing machines, and cultivating implements by the tens of thousands were required during the later 1800s. Tractors, hay balers, pumps, and increasingly specialized farm machinery continued to be important local sources of industrial demand during the first half of the 20th century. Transportation lines were improved and expanded to carry the tremendous volume of agricultural products grown on the region's farms.

Therefore, we encounter here a single portion of America that must be treated as two interdependent thematic regions. One theme, the urban and industrial nature of the region's manufacturing centers, is discussed here. The other, the rural and agricultural character of the territory's small towns and countryside, is presented in chapter 10.

Turning to the manufacturing theme, what set of conditions or circumstances led to the development of so complex a mix of economic interrelationships on this portion of the continent? What is it about this region that encouraged the growth of heavy manufacturing industries and all of the related human activities that have come to dominate here?


The United States is blessed with industrial resources. America's broad interior plains are nearly enclosed by zones of metallic mineral concentrations: the Canadian Shield to the north and two linear areas, one extending northeast-southwest (the Appalachian Mountains) and one extending northwest-southeast (the Rocky Mountains). Furthermore, much of these same interior plains are underlain by large deposits of high-quality mineral fuel, especially in the eastern section. In terms of the mineral requirements of heavy industry, then, a relatively small triangular region contains much of what is needed.

Also, the interior portion of America's Manufacturing Core possesses great accessibility resources. Connecting the mineral-rich Canadian Shield and the fuel-rich interior plains, the five Great Lakes--Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario--represent an internal waterway unlike any other in the world. The Great Lakes are interconnected with only two significant changes of elevation. A small drop of about 6.7 meters between Lake Superior and Lakes Huron and Michigan was overcome by locks at Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, first opened in 1855. The much greater change of elevation between Lakes Erie and Ontario might have been a serious barrier to water transport, but the Welland Canal (first opened in 1829) was built in Ontario to skirt Niagara Falls, and the Erie Canal was constructed (by 1825) in New York to permit some freight to avoid Lake Ontario altogether. With these exceptions, the lakes offered well over 800 kilometers of inexpensive transportation to early developers of America. Later, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the same cheap transportation was of critical importance to those moving the Shield's iron ore to the coal fields in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Much of the basis for the location of the industrial capacity that developed along the southern margins of the Great Lakes can be attributed to this natural accessibility resource.

Within the interior core, flowing westward from deep within the coal-rich Appalachian region, the Ohio River crosses the interior plains for hundreds of kilometers before joining the Mississippi River. Dozens of tributaries supply the Ohio with its water and provide further accessibility, either directly because they are navigable, too, or less directly because they offer easier routes of land movement through their valleys. Along the western margin of the core region, the Mississippi River and its tributaries provide access from the south and west.

So unique is this combination of spatial and mineral resources that the Manufacturing Core in the United States is often thought of as this interior territory alone. References to "the industrial Midwest" or "America's industrial heartland" may seek to fire the imagination, but they are geographically incomplete. The American Manufacturing Core includes both the interior core and Megalopolis, the urban region through which the interior has its primary linkage to international commerce.

Prior to 1830, the region's urban and industrial development was limited almost entirely to the Atlantic Coast in the ports' immediate hinterlands. European settlement of the trans-Appalachian area consisted of scattered subsistence agriculture and a few urban outposts. Between 1830 and the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War in 1860, population density in the interior increased and agriculture intensified and began to produce a regular surplus, spurring demand for efficient centers of exchange. The foundations for the growth of the region are reflected in the gradual shift of transportation concentration as railroad lines began to be spread across the interior plains.

The technological changes that directly affected the manufacturing geography of the United States have been grouped by one geographer, John Borchert, into four periods, or historical epochs as he called them.

Writing in Geographic Review, Borchert identified the earliest period, 1790-1830, as the Sail-Wagon Epoch. During this period, almost all cities and towns were associated with water transportation. The Atlantic ports and towns that had their beginnings along some of the coastal rivers were the major urban centers. The greatest inland urban growth during this period occurred along the main inland waterways--the Mohawk River, the Great Lakes, and the Ohio River.

The second period, 1830-1870, was triggered by development of the railway, a radical innovation in land movement. The Iron Horse Epoch at first stimulated further growth in the already established port locations. The new railway networks were constructed to focus on the port cities. Aside from additional growth of the larger port cities in what was soon to become Megalopolis, the greatest growth occurred in such cities as Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), Cincinnati (Ohio), and Louisville (Kentucky) (all on the Ohio River); Buffalo (New York), Erie (Pennsylvania), Cleveland (Ohio), Detroit (Michigan), Chicago (Illinois), and Milwaukee (Wisconsin) (all on the lower Great Lakes); and St. Louis (Missouri), Memphis (Tennessee), and New Orleans (Louisiana) (all on the Mississippi River).

The Steel-Rail Epoch, 1870-1920, was stimulated by the development of steel, the replacement of iron rails with stronger and heavier steel rails, increased demand for bituminous coal, and the spread of electric power generation. Although the greatest growth in national urban areas occurred in cities only peripheral to the Manufacturing Core, there were several notable exceptions--the numerous smaller cities near the coal fields, near the Great Lakes, or on one of the major rail connections between larger cities. These cities were able to establish themselves because the interconnecting rail network crisscrossed the region so densely between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes. Akron, Canton, and Youngstown, Ohio, are clear examples, because they are located between the coal-and-steel city of Pittsburgh and the iron-ore port and steel city of Cleveland.

A fourth epoch, the period 1920-1960, was the Auto-Air-Amenity Epoch. The main effects of transport innovations such as the automobile and the airplane were to increase individual mobility and to minimize the impact of shipment costs in the production process. Industry was drawn to areas of greatest population growth; these were primarily the amenity areas (California, Florida, Arizona) outside the traditional manufacturing core.

The United States entered yet another period after 1960, one that might be called the Information Technology Epoch. As the U.S. economy becomes more dependent on the production and exchange of information, the means of processing and transmitting this information will encourage the growth of industries that do not need cheap bulk transportation or even large population clusters. This suggests that those factors that supported growth in the Manufacturing Core cities during the first two-thirds of the 20th century will no longer provide those cities with special development advantages during future decades, although their skilled labor forces, large markets, and established air transportation patterns will make some of them strong competitors for growth.


With Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore based early and firmly on commerce and the financial exchanges it stimulated, these ports and their satellites began to accumulate population long before manufacturing became dominant in the U.S. economy. Although manufacturing was drawn to the eastern coast by the promise of matchless local markets, tremendous labor supplies, and easy access to water transportation, the economies of most of Megalopolis's cities maintained a distinctly professional character.

New England was the exception by developing manufacturing at the same time that its ports were growing. Shipbuilding industries thrived along the coast and generated countless subsidiary manufacturing operations needed to supply such a complex industrial undertaking. When factory industry began to grow in importance elsewhere in America, New England had several advantages that kept manufacturing significant, the most important of which was the ready availability of power in the area's small but abundant rivers.

Boston, as the regional capital of New England, characterizes many of the changes in this portion of the continental core. Boston's apparel and leather industries, as well as shipbuilding in nearby Connecticut, are remnants of an earlier period, but most growth in the last 50 or so years has occurred in electronic components and machinery. The harbor and the facilities found there remain excellent, but industry in New England now ships most of its products by land, either to markets in the rest of the United States or south to New York for export through Megalopolis's primary port.

New York's primacy among American harbors has been discussed. As might be expected, manufacturing industries found proximity to this node of international commerce and the population cluster around it to be very advantageous. So strong was this pull that New York's industrial mix became extremely diversified. Many industries were located on Manhattan until after the beginning of the 20th century. The increasing demand for space by the even more space-intensive office businesses gradually pushed the heavier industry to the very margins of lower Manhattan or beyond the island's confines into the New Jersey tidal marshes across the Hudson River.

The New York metropolitan economy has been dominated for some time by office industries. These are the headquarters for activities of dozens of companies and corporations, the banking and insurance cluster, publishing houses, and all the other service and control centers that require a worldwide information network and the facilities to transmit their responses rapidly.

Philadelphia and Baltimore, so different in industrial inheritance and urban character, have shown indications during recent years that they may be becoming more alike. Philadelphia's manufacturing base is almost as diversified as New York's, although there is a greater emphasis on food-processing industries and on shipbuilding and ship repair.

The growth of Philadelphia's industrial base suffered somewhat from the presence of New York's better harbor and superior access to the interior only 120 kilometers to the north. But Philadelphia's better access to the coal and steel regions of western Pennsylvania, its respectable port facilities, and its heritage as an early political and cultural center in the United States have maintained the Philadelphia metropolitan region's growth within Megalopolis. Baltimore, on the other hand, has always been on the periphery of the Manufacturing Core region. Like Philadelphia, its port possessed good rail connections with the coal and steel regions of the interior, and Baltimore's industrial mix reflects this. The manufacture of transport machinery is also important in Baltimore.

Two additional industrial sectors--metals fabrication and chemicals--are well represented in Philadelphia and Baltimore, and they emphasize the coastal connections of these regions with the heavy industrial interior.

The major cities of the other, larger portion of America's Manufacturing Core region, the industrial Midwest, have derived their primary character from their location relative to the rich mineral and agricultural resources of the continent's interior. Almost all of the large cities in the western portion of the manufacturing region are located along the Ohio River or one of its tributaries, or along the shores of one of the Great Lakes.

Most important in the development of urban centers in the interior portion of the Manufacturing Core has been the movement of metallic mineral ores from the margins of the Canadian Shield to the coal fields of western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and the smaller movement of coal in the reverse direction. Iron ore is mined at the Mesabi range of northern Minnesota and at the Gogebic, Marquette, and Menominee ranges in northern Michigan and Wisconsin. Mesabi ore is now processed into pellets at the deposit site, but for decades unprocessed ore was carried to the southern shores of Lakes Michigan and Erie in large ships designed specially for Great Lakes travel. Pellets and ore are carried to the southern shore of Lake Michigan, to Hammond and Gary in Indiana, where these shipments are met by coal transported north by rail from the large Illinois coal fields. Most of the ore, however, is shipped to Lake Erie ports. From there, it is either carried south, primarily to the steel cities of the Ohio River, or converted to steel in the lakeside cities using coal carried north on the return rail trip from the Appalachian fields.

Of the cities of the interior core, Pittsburgh is the one whose name became synonymous with steel. Located where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers join to form the Ohio River, Pittsburgh was in an excellent position to take advantage of access to both raw materials and downriver markets. The Allegheny and the Monongahela drain the coal-rich margins of the Appalachians, and the Ohio flows along the southern margins of the Agricultural Core and into the Mississippi. As Pittsburgh grew, industries that depend on steel crowded onto the narrow river bottoms to take advantage of proximity to low-cost water transportation. Metal-fabricating industries, machine parts, and other industrial consumers of large quantities of steel located their plants in and around Pittsburgh. Nearby cities also benefited from the powerful pull of steel at Pittsburgh. Youngstown, Canton, and Steubenville in Ohio, Wheeling and Weirton in West Virginia, and New Castle and Johnstown in Pennsylvania shared to some degree in the industrial growth of this region and obtained steel and steel products industries.

Urban-industrial growth did not occur solely at the source region of coal. The iron ore shipped across the lake system had to be transferred to railroads at points along the Lake Erie shore for final movement to the Pittsburgh region.

Cleveland was the largest of the Lake Erie port cities. Cleveland's initial growth was stimulated by a canal connecting the narrow and winding Cuyahoga River with a tributary of the Ohio River. Although the city quickly outgrew this small initial advantage, it was enough to give Cleveland a head start on its nearby urban competitors. The diverse industrial base that resulted took advantage of the accessibility offered by the lakes and by the major east-west railroads connecting New York with Chicago and the Agricultural Core to the west. Cleveland's growth also spilled over into adjacent ports, such as Lorain, Ashtabula, and Conneaut, Ohio, and perhaps as far east as Erie, Pennsylvania, and as far west as Toledo, Ohio, as well as to complementary growth centers inland, such as the rubber-producing city of Akron, Ohio.

Buffalo, New York, is located at the eastern end of Lake Erie. Wheat from the Plains states is brought to the western Great Lakes and carried in bulk to Buffalo for refining. The same factors that generated steel and metals manufacturing elsewhere along the lakeshore helped ensure that a significant portion of the city's manufacturing would be connected to this type of industry. The harnessing of nearby Niagara Falls for hydroelectric power attracted chemical and aluminum industries.

The city on the narrow water passage between Lakes Huron and Erie, Detroit, grew rapidly only early in the 20th century because it is located more than 80 kilometers north of the primary New York-Chicago rail connection. It was not until the rise of the industry that fostered the railroads' chief land transport competitor--motor vehicles--that Detroit developed the character for which it is best known. The most successful automobile manufacturers concentrated in Detroit and nearby cities, and the demand for automobiles skyrocketed, drawing a variety of component suppliers to southeastern Michigan.

The smaller of the two remaining metropolitan centers along the southern Great Lakes margin is Milwaukee. In addition to its industrial mix of heavy industry and motor vehicle manufacturing, Milwaukee is one of the leading centers of the brewing industry, a result of the large number of German immigrants who settled in Wisconsin during the late 19th century. A significant food processing industry is also present in Milwaukee, because it is a major focus for the middle Dairy Belt of the state.

Chicago is easily the dominant city of the interior Manufacturing Core. So important did this city become that, for many years it was called the "Second City," recognizing Chicago's population (2,725,979 in 1990) as second only to that of New York City. Although Los Angeles now outranks Chicago in population, the informal "capital" of the Midwest persists as the strongest urban focus of the United States' interior.

Located along the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan, Chicago occupies the optimum location for the transfer of people and goods between lake transportation and the rich agricultural region to the west and southwest. The Illinois and Michigan Canal, located in part through the heart of the city, was completed in 1848 to link the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River system. Four years later, Chicago was connected to New York by rail and became the primary regional rail focus in the Midwest.

Chicago absorbed thousands of immigrants throughout the later 19th century and spawned a radial network of rail lines into Illinois, Wisconsin, and the agricultural states beyond. Meatpacking developed around the city's large stockyards. Other industries, such as furniture and clothing manufacturers, located there to take advantage of the growing local market and good access to markets farther west. After the turn of the century, the steel industry was introduced to the Chicago region, south of the city itself but still along the lakeshore in Illinois and Indiana and easily accessible to the city's unparalleled railroad network.

Already a city of 1 million by 1890, Chicago doubled in size before 1910 and exceeded 3 million by the mid-1920s. The volume of Chicago's manufacturing activities today is matched only by the immense diversity of products manufactured, making the city at least partly an effective regional counterbalance to the intense economic nodes in Megalopolis.

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Source: U.S. Department of State