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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

The city of Cleveland in the US state of Ohio has gathered a remarkable collection of nicknames over the years. Recent ones include Comeback City, the New American City, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Capital of the World, and the Mistake on the Lake. Older ones include the Cleve, the Metropolis of the Western Reserve, America’s North Coast, the Sixth City, and C-Town.

One of its earliest and more enduring nicknames is the Forest City. The origins of this name are shrouded somewhat in mystery, although there are some clues. It is thought that the inspiration behind this nickname came from comments by Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville back in the 1830s. He and Gustave de Beaumont were sent to the United States by the French Government in 1831 to study the prison system. During their nine months in the US, de Tocqueville took notes on various other aspects of American society, including the economy, the political system, and observations on general life. He published a work on the prison system in 1833, and also his two volume Democracy in America in 1835 which mainly looked at the democratic system of government in the US, and a novel based on his travels.

In his travel diary, Journey to America (1831-32), de Tocqueville describes his visit to Cleveland, then a town of about 1,500 people. His party approached Cleveland by boat on Lake Erie on 21 July 1831 at 6pm. He refers to the area as “generally quite flat and sometimes a few feet high, seems almost everywhere covered in primeval forest whose immense trees were reflected in the waters that bathed their roots.” He explains that the scenery gives the impression that there is nothing but thick forest, but that “one suddenly sees a church tower, elegant houses, fine villages, with an appearance of wealth and industry,” and that “one goes without transition from the wilds into a city street, from the most savage scenes to the most smiling pictures of civilized life.” He seems intrigued that he can find “French fashions and Palais Royal caricatures” in such an environment. With such a vast country to traverse in such a short time, he sailed from the town an hour later, at 7pm.

In Democracy in America, he marvels at the propensity of the pioneers to uproot from their comfortable life in Europe, cross the Atlantic and set up anew, and just when they seem to be finally settled, off they go again into the western wilderness to seek further opportunities and prosperity. He points out that most of the residents of Ohio and Cleveland were not born there but emigrated from the eastern cities. He mentions the “immense extent of uncultivated fields.” With these comments and those in his diary, de Tocqueville had vividly portrayed life in Cleveland, with its residents setting up a modern town in the forest. He didn’t actually call it Forest City. Indeed, it didn’t become a city until 1836. The name Forest City was coined later. By just whom it was thus named is subject to dispute.

Some sources believe Timothy Smead was the first to use the name in the late 1830s. He was editor of the city’s first newspaper, the Ohio City Argus, when the western bank of the Cuyahoga River was known as Ohio City, before it became part of Cleveland in 1854. He founded the newspaper with Lyman Hall in 1836 but it only lasted two years. He published various other newspapers and magazines until the mid 1850s, including an abolitionist weekly. Exactly when Smead supposedly referred to Cleveland as Forest City is unknown. It is mentioned in an obituary in Cleveland’s Plain Dealer newspaper on 4 January 1890, which states that “while in an editorial capacity Mr. Smead gave to Cleveland the name of Forest City.”

The more widely accepted originator of the nickname is William Case, who was Cleveland’s Horticultural Society secretary in the 1840s and mayor of the city in 1850-51. His many interests included natural history and horticultural experiments. He was a leading figure in setting up the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. In 1852, he embarked on a city-wide campaign to plant shade and fruit trees, following in his father’s footsteps, who had undertaken a similar operation in the 1820s. William Case is often regarded as establishing, or at least providing the inspiration for, the nickname of Forest City.

Regardless of the exact roles of Alexis de Tocqueville, Timothy Smead, and William Case in the naming of Cleveland as the Forest City, the name became popular with local businesses around the time Case was mayor. The earliest known business to use it was the Forest City Race Track in 1850. This was quickly followed by the Forest City Agricultural Warehouse, Forest City Bank, Forest City Bath House, Forest City Cricket Club, and Forest City Lyceum, in 1851. The name was adopted by the city’s leading baseball club in the late 1860s. The Forest City club of Cleveland played in the first major league game of the National Association in 1871.

Cleveland has always been keen to maintain its reputation as the Forest City. It established the Department of Forestry and Nurseries in 1897 as part of a new campaign to save trees. The city’s Work Projects department and Bureau of Horticulture planted over 13,000 trees in the city parks in the late 1930s. A tree census was conducted in 1940, when 221,198 trees were counted in the city plus another 100,000 in the parks. By 1994, the Forest City name was still used by about 30 firms in Greater Cleveland. There appears to be at least this number in 2009.