All Aboard: Making Tracks with the Presidential Train

February to November 2010

The first five presidents - George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe - never rode a train. It was not until the 1830s that transportation by rail began to spread in the United States. The Baltimore & Ohio RR began construction in 1828, starting at the port of Baltimore, Maryland, going west to a suitable point on the Ohio River. They reached Wheeling, (now) West Virginia, in 1852. Another spur was started from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., in 1831 and opened in 1835. Railroads began as a way to transport freight, but soon passenger traffic increased.

Railroads were key during the Civil War for transporting troops and supplies. This made them a valuable target as well. By 1869, the first Transcontinental Railroad (known originally as the Pacific Railroad and later as the Overland Route) was built in the United States. It opened for through traffic on May 10, 1869, with the driving of the last spike ("Golden Spike") at Promontory Summit, Utah. The original gold spike was driven by Senator Leland Stanford.

Presidents at first were just like regular passengers; as time passed, schedule demands and concerns for personal safety called for change. Presidents then rode in a private car coupled to a regular train. By Benjamin Harrison's presidency they traveled in special trains of four or five cars in length. By the 1940s, Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled in a full sixteen to eighteen car train. Travel by rail remained the main mode of presidential travel through Dwight D. Eisenhower. Rail still is used today on occasion, usually as nostalgic campaign excursions like the old whistle stop tours.

William Henry Harrison is said to be the first presidential candidate to campaign from the rail, traveling from Wilmington, Delaware, to Trenton, New Jersey, in September 1836, during his first unsuccessful bid for office. Then in 1840 he became the first president-elect to travel by train to his inauguration. After traveling from Cincinnati via boat and stagecoach, he boarded a Baltimore and Ohio train in Frederick, Maryland, traveling through Baltimore to Washington.

Benjamin Harrison
Tour Through the South and West 1891

pres-train-1The grand transcontinental trip departed Washington on Monday, April 13, 1891, just after midnight. Harrison stopped in 19 states and 72 cities on this 9232 mile train trip. The tour went through the South to the Pacific coast and home again through the new States admitted during his administration. The Presidential party consisted of the President and Mrs. Harrison, Postmaster-General Wanamaker, Secretary J. M. Rusk, Mr. and Mrs. Russell Harrison, Mrs. McKee, Mrs. Dimmick, Daniel M. Ransdell, United States Marshal of the District of Columbia, Major Sanger, the President's military aid, Mr. and Mrs. George W. Boyd (Mr. Boyd, General Assistant Passenger Agent of the Pennsylvania Railroad and in charge of the train), Mr. E. F. Tibbott, the President's stenographer, Alfred J. Clark, O. P. Austin, and R. V. Oulahan.

On April 27 and 28, 1891, the party particpated in the launcing of the USS Monterey in San Francisco, California.

Mary Lord Dimmick Diary, Tuesday, April 28

pres-train-2...returned to the little tug, which conveyed us to the Iron works where I never shall forget the sight. Aunt Carrie & the others met us on the platform which was erected by the cruiser "Monterey" which was to be launched. But before meeting them we were taken through the work shops of the Iron works & were much interested. At the launch each lady was presented with a beautiful bouquet, and we were introduced to many, and soon were a jolly party. The Monterey was decorated with flowers and all stood expectantly. Soon we sawthe workmen knocking off the last wedges, and the signal was given. Mrs.Harrison touched the button, a little girl broke the champagne bottle against the ship (before this a clergyman offered a short prayer) and then she slid off in the most beautiful manner, and amidst cheers shouts & the band playing The Star-Spangled Banner. The President waving his hat, & the ladies handkerchiefs. I was perfectly paralyzed and could not move or even make a sound. It was a superb sight as the ship touched the water. Up went the Stars & Stripes, the Union Jack, and the President's flag on her, and we all shook hands & screamed with excitement. Oh! What a sight it was!


The train consisted of five cars, the dining car Coronado, the private car New Zealand, and the observation car the Vacuna. The front baggage car was inscribed in large gilt letters "The Presidential Special." Returning back to Washington on May 15, 1891, Harrison called everyone on the train to speak to them. He was grateful for the delightful trip and shook everyone's hand. The train pulled into Washington at 5:30 p.m. Harrison's first greeting was to the grandchildren waiting at the station, Baby McKee and his little sister Mary Lodge McKee. The Mail and Express reported that, "In less than five minutes the entire party were homeward bound, and the train was left alone, dust-stained and travel-worn, to tell its tale of the great ten thousand mile journey."

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“An American citizen could not be a good citizen who did not have a hope in his heart.” ~ Benjamin Harrison

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