The Other Chambers of Commerce


The recent political conflict between the Obama Administration and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has thrown a new spotlight on an old communication problem. Local chambers of commerce, although they predate the U.S. Chamber by nearly a century and a half, often are assumed to be part of the U.S. Chamber, or otherwise under its direction. They aren’t. They are independent.

During the pre-election controversy this year, it was clear that many people, including many chamber members, did not know this fact. They believe that U.S. Chamber President Tom Donohue and his colleagues on H Street directly or indirectly control all that local chambers do. But Donohue and his staff don’t exercise such control, nor do they want to.

Few people think about what chambers do locally. For example, who knows that Elliot Tiber, president of the Bethel, N.Y., Chamber of Commerce, secured the permit for Woodstock?

It was also a local chamber – the Business Men’s League of Atlantic City – that came up in 1920 with the idea of a festival to keep tourists in town after Labor Day. Pretty women in beachwear would turn out to be the centerpiece of the annual event. We have that business group (now called the Greater Atlantic City Chamber) to thank for the Miss America Contest.

Was Charles Lindbergh’s plane called The Spirit of Enterprise (the U.S. Chamber’s tag line)? No, the flying bucket of bolts was, of course, The Spirit of St. Louis. The president of the St. Louis Chamber came up with the name in order to promote the great river city. And why should Lindbergh object? The chamber president also raised most of the money for the aircraft.

And who sent out the promotional brochure that enticed the first movie producer to southern California in 1907? It was the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. In nearby Hollywood a chamber was later active as well, helping re-fashion the famous Hollywood sign out of a decaying advertisement for a real estate development called “Hollywoodland.”

Moreover, there’s a guy in a suit present next to the glamorous celebrities who get their photos taken when their stars are set in the Hollywood sidewalk. Who is that business man? It’s Leron Gubler, president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which invented and maintains the Walk of Fame.

Most of the thousands of things that local chambers have done and do are far removed from the big national issues that embroil the U.S. Chamber. Sure, most of the chambers in the country agree with and support the lion’s share of the U.S. Chamber’s positions. Although the goals are often the same, the priorities, issues, methods, leadership and, importantly, ownership are not.

Local chambers have shown themselves perfectly able to get into fights of their own, without orders from a non-existent chamber of commerce command center.

Was it the national chamber’s president who financed the Florida and Alabama, the ships that terrorized Union merchants during the Civil War? No, it was George Trenholm, one of the most active members of the Charleston (SC) Chamber of Commerce. As president of the chamber, Trenholm had asked for a thorough federal charting of the waterways around the Charleston harbor. The survey provided valuable navigation information that became critical when Trenholm emerged a decade later not only as privateer king of the Confederacy but also as chief sponsor of blockade runners. (Some believe he was a model for Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind.)

But it wasn’t as if all chambers were Confederates. It was the New York Chamber of Commerce that furnished a cash reward of $25,000 to the captain and crew of the Kearsarge, which finally sank the Alabama.

There have been other times when local chambers have performed roles worthy of national headlines. During Prohibition, a liquor wholesaler named Al Capone was seen as bad for business by the president of the Chicago Association of Commerce, Colonel Robert Isham Randolph. In an act of some courage, Randolph personally warned Capone and created a chamber subcommittee, popularly called the “Secret Six,” that engineered Capone’s downfall. The Six hired a consultant named Alexander Jamie to gather information, especially financial information, on Capone. Jamie brought in his brother-in-law, Eliot Ness, to help. Capone later credited the Secret Six with taking him down.

Of course the local chambers have made their share of mistakes over the years. The St. Louis Chamber of Commerce once tried to stop the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi, but was stymied in court by the common sense and careful research of a folksy lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. And the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce successfully pushed for easing the quarantine regulations on ships in its harbor, after which a yellow fever-laden ship travelled up the Mississippi and nearly wiped out Memphis in 1878.

But if you take some water and add a chamber, the result can be a megalopolis. Starting in 1840, the Houston Chamber with single-minded determination pushed for the removal of snags and mud from the Buffalo Bayou, which trickled on a circuitous 50-mile path to the sea. In the late 1800s, rain melted the salt on a barge on the bayou, and the Galveston News cackled that Houston finally had a salt-water port. But the laughing stopped on September 8, 1900, when a hurricane flattened Galveston.

Houston overnight became a critical port for Texas, just in time for the Spindletop oil bonanza of January 10, 1901. The chamber would continue to push for improvements on what became the Houston Ship Channel, guaranteeing decades of future growth. Today, the chamber, now called the Greater Houston Partnership, is anticipating the shipping/economic impact of the opening of the second Panama Canal.

Some national change in the country’s economic model has sprung directly from the actions of chambers. The Chicago Board of Trade, a chamber founded in 1848, revolutionized how its members bought and sold farm commodities, becoming so successful that by 1859 it essentially left the traditional chamber business. Instead, the Board of Trade continued to plow the virgin soil of this new financial field, inventing futures contracts and modern commodities trading.

And so it goes. The Birmingham (AL) Chamber of Commerce belatedly, but successfully, broke the power of segregationist Bull Connor and promoted integration of the downtown, while the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce president negotiated the accord that, in a celebrated speech, Martin Luther King defended by saying, “If anyone breaks this contract, let it be the white man.” Segregation, especially racial conflict and the resulting negative publicity, was bad for business, and chambers took the side of peaceful integration in many (although not all) cities throughout the South.

So much of what we think of as America was facilitated or aided by those often forgotten, always resourceful groups known as local chambers of commerce. Whether it’s the Golden Gate Bridge, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the statue of Vulcan over Birmingham, commission and city manager forms of government, United Way-style giving, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and so much more – it was local chambers that led the way. The U.S. Chamber was fighting for business and free enterprise principles in Washington, but it was local chambers working “on the ground” that helped plant so many of these seeds across the nation.

Each of the local chambers is vastly smaller than the U.S. Chamber, but collectively they have had a large impact. As in so many things, it has been the local organizations, not merely the national ones, that have shaped this country’s enterprise culture.

Chris Mead is senior vice president of the American Chamber of Commerce Executives. He is working on a history of local chambers of commerce in the United States.

Photo by Rob Shenk