The Deadliest Kvetch

POTUS and Trains; a Reflection on President's Day Weekend

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Happy President's Day weekend! I'm sure you all are working on your oval office dioramas right now, and wondering what presidential campaign buttons you will receive in your President's Day stockings, but perhaps you could take a few minutes to reflect with me on the relationships former US Presidents had with our most beloved form of transportation. Our highest elected executives were avid train riders for over a hundred years. Their trips meant special crews, pilot trains, guarded bridges, spiked switches, the best grades of coal and rights over all other trains. Later special rail cars would be built to accommodate the President and his entourage and some Presidents used the rails for their "whistle stop" campaigns. Of course besides using the railroads many Presidents have either encouraged or discouraged their development and use, either by executive order or legislation. Even our current President has attempted to nurture the creation of High Speed Rail lines in the United States. Before we formally begin, let's look at a letter to a US President that is now generally considered a hoax:

In 1829, eight years before he became President, Martin Van Buren wrote to then President Andrew Jackson [keep in mind that the Erie Canal had opened in 1825]:
"The canal system of this country is being threatened by the spread of a new form of transportation known as "railroads". The federal government must preserve the canals for the following reasons:
One -‑ if canal boats are supplanted by "railroads", serious unemployment will result. Captains, cooks, drivers, repairmen, and lock tenders will be left without means of livelihood, not to mention the numerous farmers now employed in growing hay for horses.
Two ‑- boat builders would suffer, and towline, whip and harness makers would be left destitute.
Three ‑- canal boats are absolutely essential to the defense of the United States. In the event of expected trouble in England, the Erie Canal would be the only means by which we could ever move the supplies so vital to waging modern war.
For the above mentioned reasons, the Government should act to protect people from the evils of "railroads" and to preserve the canals for posterity. As you may well know, Mr. President, "railroad" carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of 15 miles per hour by things called "engines", which in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to the crops, scaring the livestock and frightening women and children. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed."

I include the above as it is a good example of the attitude towards the rail roads in the early years of their growth. Let's now look at more positive examples:
John Quincy Adams was the first US President to ride the rails. "Wait a minute!" you say, "I thought it was Andrew Jackson!" You are correct, and so am I, except for the fact that in 1830 Mr. Adams was not the sitting president when he was headed from Massachusetts back to Washington, D.C. to serve in the House of Representatives. On December 17, he took a horse-drawn B&O train from Baltimore to Relay, MD as part of his trip to the nation’s capitol.
Andrew Jackson was the first sitting President to have ridden a train. On June 6th 1833, President Jackson traveled from Baltimore to Ellicott’s Mills on a short (20 miles or so) excursion, also on the B&O.
President Millard Fillmore, in 1850 signed a land grant for the construction of the Illinois Central Railroad, making it the first land-grant railroad in the United States. The Douglas Railroad Bill gave the state of Illinois 2.5 million acres to help in the construction of a 700-mile railroad from Chicago to Cairo in the south and to Dunleith in the north.
President Franklin Pierce took office in 1853, but few know that two months before he took office, he and his wife saw their eleven-year-old son killed when their train was wrecked. Grief-stricken, Pierce entered the Presidency nervously exhausted.
President Lincoln formally inaugurated construction of the transcontinental railroad that ultimately linked California with the rest of the nation. President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862.
President Rutherford B. Hayes has the distinction of being the president who finally put down the "Great Upheaval", otherwise known as the The Great Railroad Strike of 1877. The strike began to lose momentum when President Hayes sent federal troops from city to city. These troops suppressed strike after strike, until at last, approximately 45 days after it had started, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was over
President Grover Cleveland on February 4, 1887 signed into law the Interstate Commerce Act, which was passed by Congress the previous year. This would create the Interstate Commerce Commision, which would over see the operations of the railroads until 1980.
Theodore Roosevelt assumed the mantle of POTUS on September of 1901. Roosevelt initiated the Hepburn Act, which proposed enhancing the powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission to include the ability to regulate shipping rates on railroads.
President Woodrow Wilson in 1917 orders nationalization of the railroads shortly after the US enters World War I. The United States Railroad Administration manages the system until 1920, when Congress returns control to the railroad companies.
Harry S. Truman was the last President to “whistle stop” by train in 1945. Presidents Ulysses S. Grant to Franklin D. Roosevelt made similar uses of trains beginning in 1872.
President James Carter, in 1980, has the distinction of being president when the Railroads were finally deregulated.
President William Clinton was in office in 1996, when the Surface Transportation Board was established.
The Ferdinand Magellan (please use this link for more information: http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/preside...umber_one.html )
U.S. Car No.1 is the only private coach railroad car specifically designed for the president of the United States. The Pullman Company built the Ferdinand Magellan in 1928, and refurbished the car and presented it (dubbed U.S. Car No.1) to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on December 18, 1942. Both President Roosevelt and President Truman used the car extensively for state business, reelection campaigns, and personal trips. President Dwight D. Eisenhower briefly used U.S. Car No. 1 until air travel on Air Force I began to replace U.S. Car No. 1 as the preferred means of transport. In October 1984, Ronald Reagan requested the use of U.S. Car No.1 for a one-day whistle stop reelection campaign trip to Ohio in commemoration of rail travel.
Funeral Trains: It should be mentioned that several United States Presidents and one candidate for the office, once deceased, were honored by rail transportation via the use of "Funeral Trains". These include the following:
Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, William McKinley, Warren G. Harding, and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

I hope you've enjoyed this reflection on trains, the railroads, and United States Presidents. Perhaps you can read this blog to your children as you tuck them into bed on President's Day Eve, while visions of the Great Seal of the President dance in their heads. Or not.

Thanks for visiting "The Deadliest Kvetch".

Updated February 20th, 2012 at 04:02 AM by Euphod



  1. leeferr's Avatar
    You're just a fountain of knowledge Ed. I knew some of the tidbits that you have so graciously laid before us, but others, I wasn't aware of.

    I once read a very interesting book about the planning and construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. I wish that I could remember the name of the book since I would recommend it to all. I had never realized until I read the book to what extent Lincoln was instrumental in the realization of the transcontinental and his belief in it uniting and bringing a western frontier into the fold.

  2. Euphod's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by leeferr
    You're just a fountain of knowledge Ed.
    I wish that were so Mike, actually I spent quite a bit of time doing research for this one. It is amazing how closely tied the railraods were with the presidents for over the first 100 years. Lincoln did have quite a passion for the transcontinental, and for more than one reason. It's fitting that his body was carried by a funeral train after death. Once more, thanks for reading, and for commenting, it makes my day!
  3. leeferr's Avatar
    You're right Ed. Lincoln had what some would call an obsession about the transcontinental. I'm disregarding the then ongoing debate about the routing of the line, but his passion for the line was a subset of his passion for the success of the country. He had a deep understanding of the possibilities of railroads and was instrumental in the use of railroads in execution of the Civil War (or as we around my neck of the woods like to call it, the War of Northern Aggression). The Confederacy, with it's lack of developed railways, was at a disadvantage in the movement of logistical materials in support of the War effort, but Lincoln understood it's importance from the outset of the conflict where the Confederacy didn't until too late for their cause.

    It's a shame that Lincoln was never able to actually traverse the rails that he poured so much effort into conception and delivery.