The Grand Banquet in Music Hall to Inaugurate the Cincinnati Southern Railroad, March 1880
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The Grand Southern Railway Banquet at Music Hall

With everything positive in your world, how do you get people to travel hundreds of mile and come to you? Here’s a “Music Hall” story that has one answer. First, let’s set the stage.

The Queen City

By 1880, the city of Cincinnati was thriving – the largest city in Ohio. The city boasted the densest population of any city in the U.S.

Businesses were booming. The city was seen as the founder of Industrial Expositions, with a new one each year. Major industries included meatpacking, woodworking, iron production and carriage making, Culturally, the city boasted Music Hall, the bi-annual May Festival, an Art Academy, Public Library, two well-regarded music schools, and Natural History Society.

Cincinnati Southern Railroad
Cincinnati Southern Railroad

Add to that: Cincinnati became the first municipality in the country to build and own a major railroad. The Cincinnati Southern ran from here to Chattanooga, Tennessee.

To celebrate the opening of our great Southern Railroad, the Chamber of Commerce, Board of Trade and top local merchants came up with a plan. They would invite their counterparts in the South to take an inaugural excursion on the newly-completed railroad to Cincinnati to see what the city had to offer, and to attend a grand banquet in Music Hall on 18 March 1880.

They estimated that Music Hall could seat around 1,770 people.

It would be the greatest and largest banquet ever given in the U.S!

If You Build It…

Three very long trains brought delegations from Alabama, Georgia, South Caroline and Tennessee. The guests were cordially welcomed from the city core to the hilltops and beyond.

Businesses were decorated. A parade was held. After dark, fireworks entertained both visitors and residents. Special committee members met delegations at their hotel and escorted them around the city.

Banquet table diagram with the names of each table captain
Banquet table diagram

On the evening of March 18, many of the delegates filed into Music Hall. In 1880, the floor of Music Hall was pretty much a flat surface, with a slightly-raised staging area and the organ at the western end. For the banquet, the stage area and the entire floor was filled with tables. Each table was headed by a “host” Cincinnatian to ensure the city’s guests received everything they wanted.

A Floral Delight

Each guest received a boutonniere, but that’s just the start of the décor. Pastries and elegant floral arrangements decorated each table. Before dinner was served, the hall was filled with the fragrances of calla lilies, tuberose, lilies of the valley, roses and smilax.

The Hook & Hastings organ was decorated with an 8-foot long locomotive designed in pink and white flowers.

Music Amid the Celebration

The program for the event included performances on the Grand Hook & Hastings Organ. Also, the Cincinnati Orchestra Reed Band, conducted by Michael Brand, played throughout the evening. While each selection was applauded, the most enthusiastic response occurred when the orchestra played “Dixie.” The entire congregation stood and let forth a “rebel yell” during the chorus, and during “The Star Spangled Banner.”

During the banquet

Life is a Banquet

The following were among the dishes served:

  • Blue Points on half shell
  • Kennebeck Salmon with Hollandaise sauce
  • Roast Sirloin Beef with Mushrooms, string beans and potatoes
  • Chicken Croquettes and French Peas
  • Roast Venison with Jelly
  • Roast Mallard Duck with Port Wine Sauce
  • Lobster Salad
  • Various cheeses
  • Wines include Haut Sauterne, Bordeaux, Sherry, Claret, and, of course, Champagne
  • And for dessert, assorted ice creams, water ices, fruits, cakes and coffee

In all, the music, the dinner, a handful of toasts and the speeches went well beyond 11pm.

The Feast, By the Numbers

Not including the planning committee, it took an army of people and a ton of food to pull this off.

  • 43 head waiters
  • 260 under waiters
  • 81 wine servers
  • 60 carriers
  • 28 cooks
  • 28 assistant cooks
  • 20 washers
  • 10 carvers
  • 12 heads of departments

And dishes…

  • 5,400 dinner plates
  • 2,000 soup plates
  • 3,600 dessert plates
  • 9,000 glasses
  • 4,000 knives, forks and spoons
  • 10,800 oysters on the half-shell
  • 100 gallons of soup
  • 1,200 pounds of fish
  • 1,000 pounds of sirloin
  • 2,000 croquettes
  • 1,000 pounds of venison
  • 600 ducks
  • 2 wagon-loads of potatoes
  • 600 cans of peas and beans
  • 100 gallons of ice cream
  • 125 pound of cake
  • 75 gallons of punch
  • 100 gallons of coffee
  • untold “quantities of other sundries”
  • 3,520 bottles of wine
  • Three casks of sherry
  • Sixty cases of sauternes
  • 75 cases of claret
  • 125 cases of champagne
A sketch of a kitchen needed for the banquet
A sketch of a kitchen needed for the banquet in the South – Horticultural – Hall

Originally, two mammoth “kitchens” were planned, one in the north and one in the south hall.

Each kitchen was said to be outfitted with:

  • 14 large ranges
  • roasting ovens
  • steam tables
  • untold number of tubs of ice
  • a half-dozen tanks for soup and coffee

At the time, these halls were separate buildings, so covered passages were constructed between them and the auditorium.

The Entire Effort was a Great Success

In addition to the banquet, the thousands of visitors toured manufacturing and wholesale houses, as well as packing businesses, that made Cincinnati the thriving metropolis of the era. They were also treated other, smaller banquets, and to theatre tickets, lunch at the Zoo, and other attractions.

So – how did our city fathers get a great number of people to come to Cincinnati, to learn about and experience our city and its wonderful amenities? For the visitors, it was all free. A junket. The city fathers had raised enough money to cover the entire venture.

Additional Facts

While portions of the line were finished and used starting around the summer of 1877, the entire line wasn’t completed until February 1880. On February 21, the first freight train traveled from Chattanooga to Cincinnati and in early March, the first passenger train ran the route.

And that first passenger train had a nickname. Ever hear of the song “Chattanooga Choo Choo?”

The rail line represented a number of “firsts.”

  • This was the first major link in north-south public transportation
  • The Cincinnati Southern Railways was America’s first municipal railway system.

In case anyone asks, the City of Cincinnati still owns the Railroad.