The History Behind Ohio and Northern Kentucky’s Friendly Rivalry

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Illustration by Daniel Sulzberg

Like sisters forced to go halvsies on a single closet, Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky have shared, swiped, traded, bargained, and blamed ever since the first settlers drifted down the Ohio River.

Cincinnati grabbed a head start on urban life, but Northern Kentucky’s pioneering agriculture inspired our first entrepreneurs, Thomas and Francis Kennedy, to launch a ferry for transporting produce and livestock across the Ohio. (Francis drowned hauling bluegrass beeves to General Arthur St. Clair’s mess tents.)

Ft. Washington was constructed on command of the president himself in 1789 but, once hostilities with the Native Americans cooled, Northern Kentucky lured the garrison over the river to occupy the Newport Barracks.

As early as 1835, artists portrayed a packed townscape on the Ohio side, our hills denuded for construction and firewood. On the sylvan southern shore only a handful of structures cling to the riverbank in Newport, with even fewer in Covington. These antique images illustrate the relationship between the two shores because it is obvious that Cincinnati has always considered the Riverfront to be its good side. From the iconic 1802 portrait of a pioneer settlement to the magnificent 1848 daguerreotype panorama to the title sequence of the Edge of Night soap opera to the logo for Skyline Chili, the Queen City consistently presented its best face to our Kentucky neighbors.

Over the years, intertwined transportation systems wove tighter bonds between Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati. The initial ferries gave way to bridges and the Cincinnati, Newport & Covington Railway—known as the Green Line—that carried passengers over the Roebling Suspension Bridge into Dixie Terminal. When the automobile nudged passenger trains aside, the Dixie Highway ran through Cincinnati and Covington into the deep South, blazing a trail for I-75.

Cincinnati soared into commercial aviation first, with flights from Lunken Field taking off in 1925. As early adopters, Cincinnati learned a lot and Northern Kentucky capitalized on that knowledge, planting the big international airport in Boone County and branding it CVG for Covington.

It’s possible to go on all day in a game of call and response, listing firsts and bests from either side of the river, then matching them with connections to the other side.

For example, old-timers recall the classic Prohibition-surviving brands of golden amber refreshment—Hudepohl, Schoenling, Burger, and Wiedemann—and rarely bother to guess which originated on which side of the river.

The first woman to graduate from the University of Cincinnati? Winona Lee Hawthorne of Newport. The weekly drawings that appeared for decades on the Enquirer editorial page entitled “A Spot in Cincinnati”? Produced by Burlington, Kentucky’s Caroline Williams. And painter Frank Duveneck, who put the Cincinnati Art Academy on the map? A Covington boy.

Cincinnati had the Black Dome and Ludlow Garage in the 1960s and 1970s. Northern Kentucky saw that and raised the ante with the Jockey Club and Southgate House in the 1980s and 1990s.

For one brief year, 1913, two major league teams played baseball in the central Ohio Valley as Covington fielded the lackluster Blue Sox in the short-lived Federal League before they decamped to Kansas City.

Is anything more uniquely redolent of Cincinnati’s German heritage than goetta? But where is the largest producer—and the annual Goettafest—located? In Northern Kentucky.

While Cincinnati staked a claim on serenity with classical radio station WGUC, Northern Kentucky responded with the madcap antics of WNOP, first from its Monmouth Street studios and then from the Jazz Ark floating flagrantly off the Newport shore.

And for a real explosion of sibling rivalry, who gets to claim George Clooney?

Over the years, significant debates raged across the riparian divide. In 1860, for example, there were more than 2,000 enslaved human beings living in Northern Kentucky. Cincinnati mobs, egged on by their neighboring slaveowners, regularly dunked abolitionist newspaper presses into the Ohio.

Today, Northern Kentucky celebrates its “Sin City” reputation with the Newport Gangster Tour. But corrupt politicians? Gambling? Drugs? Prostitution and striptease? Oh, please! Cincinnati had all that, in spades, from 1870 to World War I, when Progressive politicians chased it across the bridge.

The U.S. Army shut down Cincinnati’s red-light district in 1917 because it was too close to the training camp at Ft. Thomas. Many of those Cincinnati bordellos were owned by William P. Devou, who bequeathed his profits to Covington for the creation of Devou Park.

Characteristic of most sisterhoods, there is certainly a lot of drama in our regional negotiations but, at bottom, we consistently demonstrate we are all family.

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