20 Towns That Used to Run America

While some cities rose to prominence early in our nation’s history and stayed there, others sat in the driver’s seat of progress for a narrow window of time, yet had an indelible impact on American life. Scroll through for a look at some of the overlooked cities that have had a tremendous impact on American history.

  1. Buffalo, New York

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    Buffalo New York

    During the War of 1812, this burg served as the military headquarters for American forces posted on the Niagara frontier. Although it was burned to the ground by British forces during the Battle of Buffalo, the town eventually rose from the ashes to serve as Erie Canal's western terminus. By the turn of the 19th century, Buffalo had transformed itself into a boom town replete with flour and steel mills and railroads that proved pivotal for trade with the West.

    Related: The 20 Friendliest Cities in America

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  2. Lancaster, Pennsylvania

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    Lancaster Pennsylvania

    Washington, D.C. may be our nation's capital today, but did you know that this humble city in southeast Pennsylvania once served as the seat of government? After the British captured the temporary capital of Philadelphia during the American Revolution, the Continental Congress fled to Lancaster, making it the capital for 24 hours. Alas, the designation didn't stick; on the run from the British, Congress hightailed it again, this time to York, Pennsylvania.

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  3. York, Pennsylvania

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    York Pennsylvania

    Founded in 1741, York served as the temporary capital of the Continental Congress and served as the site of the drafting of the Articles of Confederation in 1777.

    Related: 13 Homes from the Original Colonies that Still Stand Today

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  4. Detroit, Michigan

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    Detroit Michigan

    Older than America itself, Detroit was founded as a bustling fur-trading post in the early 18th century, but earned its fame and fortune as the Motor City, the seat of America's automobile industry. Unfortunately, lack of diversification in the local economy paired with uncertainty at the "Big Three" auto makers—Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler—led to economic hardship from which the city is still recovering.

    Related: Extreme Urban Makeovers: 15 Cities That Are Nothing Like They Used To Be

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  5. Cleveland, Ohio

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    Cleveland Ohio

    Cleveland earned its place on the map when it became a critical junction on Lake Erie for the shipment of raw materials like iron ore and copper. But it really hit the big time in 1870 when John D. Rockefeller chose Cleveland as the home of his company Standard Oil, which would eventually oversee more than 90 percent of the country's oil refineries.

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  6. Levittown, New York

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    Levittown New York

    Eight out of ten Americans live in the suburbs, a trend that might never have emerged if not for Levittown. Born out of the post-World-War II housing boom, the town became the first mass-produced suburb in the U.S. in 1951. Although contemporary architects and urban planners have adapted Levittown's original layout of cookie-cutter homes to feature dwellings with more architectural variety, the city remains an archetype for modern suburban developments.

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  7. Greenbelt, Maryland

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    Greenbelt Maryland

    In a bid to ease housing shortages and create a cooperative community of middle-income federal workers, this experimental town was founded in 1937 as the first and largest of three planned communities born out of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. The innovative 6-square-mile town, which included a cafe, grocery store, and housing that was filled by involved interviews with housing applicants, serves as a model for modern-day public cooperatives.

    Related: 18 Small Towns That Changed America

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  8. Hartford, Connecticut

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    Hartford Connecticut

    "The Insurance Capital of the World," as Hartford is known, sold its first policy for fire insurance way back in 1794. By 1950, when the city's population had grown to 177,000, Hartford was home to insurance giants ranging from Aetna to The Hartford, many of which remain in the Asylum Hill neighborhood to this day.

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  9. Albany, New York

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    Albany New York

    Albany made a name for itself during the late-18th to early-19th century as a center for transportation—both by land and sea. The city's location at the eastern edge of the Erie Canal, coupled with its rapid development of turnpikes and railroads, led it to become a major exporter of iron and lumber, offer a large number of industrial jobs, and serve as a stopover for pioneers headed for Buffalo and Michigan.

    Related: The 14 Best Governor's Mansions in America

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  10. Atlantic City, New Jersey

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    Atlantic City New Jersey

    It was Atlantic City's thriving tourism industry in the late-19th to early-20th century that would eventually earn it the nickname of "The World's Playground." The city's distinct architectural and cultural innovations (including a boardwalk in 1870, and the invention of saltwater taffy in 1883) cemented its reputation as a resort town. Although tourism declined after World War II—and took the city’s fortunes with it—the rise of its casinos in the 1970s allowed it to regain prominence as a gamer's paradise.

    Related: The Best Tiny Beach Towns from East to West

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  11. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

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    Bethlehem Pennsylvania

    If you've ever looked in awe at a towering skyscraper, you have Bethlehem to thank. Bethlehem Steel Corporation, founded in 1857, developed the "I-beam" widely used in steel skyscrapers. The company's impressive output, which included armor and warships for U.S. troops in both World Wars, made it the second-largest steel producer in the country between the mid-18th and mid-19th century.

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  12. Cumberland, Maryland

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    Cumberland Maryland

    As the eastern terminus of the National Road, the first major highway in the country built with federal funds, Cumberland facilitated westward migration between the early- to mid-19th century to lands newly acquired after the Louisiana Purchase. The 620-mile road also established Cumberland as an industry-rich town with sizable coal, iron, and timber stores.

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  13. Galveston, Texas

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    Galveston Texas

    Before the Galveston Hurricane made landfall in 1900 and devastated the city's infrastructure and industries, Galveston was Texas' largest city and one of the largest ports in the country. The "Queen City of the Gulf," as Galveston was known during at its heyday in the early to late-19th century, the city established the first naval base, cotton press, parochial school, and insurance company in the state.

    Related: 15 Places Every American Should Visit at Least Once

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  14. St. Augustine, Florida

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    St. Augustine Florida

    The Florida East Coast Railway, completed in 1885, transformed St. Augustine into a winter resort town for American high society through the early twentieth century. Between 1887 and 1888, industrialist Henry Flagler oversaw the construction of the Moorish Revival-style Ponce de Leon and Hotel Alcazar, which established this city as the east coast's American Riviera.

    Related: 10 U.S. Towns That Are Older Than America

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  15. Baltimore, Maryland

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    Baltimore Maryland

    Baltimore is the home of many important firsts, including the first U.S. post office in 1774, and the first telegraph line in 1844. However, Baltimore's Inner Harbor proved to be an important first for countless immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, who can count the site as where they took their first steps on U.S. soil.

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  16. Plymouth, Massachusetts

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    Plymouth Massachusetts

    Founded in 1620 by Pilgrims as the first permanent settlement in New England, Plymouth was the capital of the Plymouth Colony until it was integrated into the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691. The city, named after the English town from which the Mayflower ship sailed, hosted the first Thanksgiving, and the laws and social norms of the townspeople are thought to have influenced the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

    Related: 25 Tiny Towns to Visit for a Glimpse at How We Used to Live

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  17. Hamptons, Virginia

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    Hamptons Virginia

    Hamptons demonstrated its military might throughout the 21st century with the establishment of the Langley Air Force base. During the Vietnam War, Langley Air Force base served as a waiting area for Air Force families to hang tight until their enlisted loved ones returned stateside.

    Related: 35 Strange But True Facts About America

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  18. Cambridge, Massachusetts

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    Cambridge Massachusetts

    While the Confederates and Union slugged it out on the battlefield, a quiet literary revolution was taking place in this New England town. Between the mid-19th to early 20th century, the city served as a meeting place for the Fireside Poets—a group of New England writers including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and William Cullen Bryant whose morality-laced poems so captivated readers that they made a habit of gathering by the fire at home to pore over them.

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  19. Portsmouth, New Hampshire

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    Portsmouth New Hampshire

    Portsmouth established itself as a preeminent architectural retreat between the 17th to 19th centuries by using the spoils of its long-running success in the shipbuilding industry to fund the construction of an array of exquisite Federal, Colonial, and Victorian-style buildings.

    Related: Would You Recognize These 9 Iconic Streets Way Back When?

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  20. Providence, Rhode Island

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    Providence Rhode Island

    Following the Civil War, the then thriving maritime town of Providence turned its sights to manufacturing. Between the postbellum era and the start of the 20th century, the population grew threefold as the city became home to mega-sized manufacturing plants that produced highly-sought after goods such as textiles, jewelry, and machinery.

    Related: 13 All-But-Forgotten Company Towns Around the Country

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