Connecticut

Six New England Presidential Visits and the Stories Behind Them

Stereo-graph photo of Ulysses Grant atop Mount Washington in 1869.

New England is full of sites that hosted past presidential visits as the country’s leaders came north in search of votes, campaign cash or just a vacation.  Here are six of them:

Providence, 1843

Market Square, Providence, 1844.

Market Square, Providence, 1844.

In 1843, President John Tyler’s presidency was reeling. Tyler was the first vice president to ascend to the presidency because the incumbent died. His detractors let him know it. They dubbed him the 'Accidental President' or 'His Accidency.'

By 1843, Tyler was facing dramatic turnover in his cabinet. His efforts to negotiate the annexation of Texas into the United States was causing an uproar, since Taylor wanted it to join the United States as a slave-holding state.

Buffeted by Washington, Tyler decided to take his program to the people. He headed north, and the wildly popular response encouraged him to mount a third-party bid for office in 1844.

Tyler arrived before dawn on June 15 at Stonington, Conn., where a crowd of 2,000 greeted him.

Travelling north toward Rhode Island, the crowds began swelling around North Kingstown. The New York Herald noted that Providence was unprepared for the huge outpouring of people eager to see the president:

The curiosity to see him was immense. The Common Council of Providence mismanaged everything most horribly; a mob surrounded the cars, and set all order at defiance. An old man cried out, “Here, I’ve had my pocket picked of my pocket book.”

Tyler traveled the streets to Brown University and back to Market Square, where he ate at the Franklin House, an inn that used to stand across from the Market House.

Across the river he did some handshaking at the first indoor mall in America, the Westminster Arcade: “The president then went into a queer looking place called Westminster, and shook hands with 5,000 people,” reported the Herald.

A delegation from Lowell, Mass. buttonholed Tyler and persuaded him to visit that city, as well. He traveled there after the dedication of the Bunker Hill Monument. There he learned of a new disaster brewing for his administration – his attorney general had died. The president decided to return to Washington rather than continue his tour, but his spirits were greatly improved.

Tyler finally dropped out of the 1844 race when the Whigs approved his plan to annex Texas.

The Westminster Arcade remains open to this day in Providence. Today it’s a shopping destination with two stories of apartments.

Sargent's Purchase, N.H., 1869

Stereo-graph photo of Ulysses Grant atop Mount Washington in 1869.

Stereo-graph photo of Ulysses Grant atop Mount Washington in 1869.

In the summer of 1869, Washington’s heat drove the new president, Ulysses S. Grant, to visit New England with his wife and children.

On Aug. 27, 1869, the Grant family climbed Mount Washington. They took the three-year-old cog railway, the first cog railway in the world. It was designed by Sylvester Marsh for the mountain’s steep grade. The train has cog wheels that mesh with a toothed rail in the center of the track.

It wasn’t the first train the Grants took on that vacation. They rode from Newport, R.I., to Boston, where a large crowd greeted them. They took another train to Nashua, N.H., where they were again greeted by thousands of well-wishers. On they went to Manchester, where Grant toured the printing department of the Amoskeag Mills and greeted some 3,000 millworkers lined up to see him.

In Concord, Grant told the welcoming crowd that it was his first visit to New Hampshire and he was sorry an injury prevented him from shaking hands.

At 9 a.m. the next day, the presidential party left the Crawford House in Crawford Notch, N.H., for what was then called the Sky Railroad. According to news reports, the president was particularly struck with the simplicity and safety of the air brake.

The Grants seated themselves in the car and moved skyward. A cannon was fired when they reached the summit and the president was told the Harvards had lost the boat race. “Well I am very sorry to hear it,” Grant said.

After lunch, the presidential party headed to Littleton and then Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

The Cog Railway to the top of Mount Washington has never stopped operating.

Brattleboro, Vt., 1877

Brooks House, Brattleboro, Vt.

Brooks House, Brattleboro, Vt.

Until 2000, history counted the election of 1876 the closest contest for the White House ever. Rutherford B. Hayes, an Ohio Republican, won the Electoral College. Samuel Tilden, a Democrat, won the popular vote.

The two parties hammered out the compromise of 1877, in which Hayes got the White House and the Democrats got everything else. They won an end to the Reconstruction period of federal control of the South.

Without federal troops to intervene when African-Americans were harassed, Democrats soon took control of the southern statehouses. Their anti-black policies that survived for decades.

As a longtime supporter of Reconstruction, Hayes wanted to “wipe out the color line.” His efforts at promoting racial harmony failed. Perhaps no one could have succeeded.

In his first months in office, Hayes had to authorize the military to repulse Mexican criminal bandits terrorizing the border and put down the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

He needed an escape, and Vermont was the tonic.  Hayes’ grandfather, Rutherford, built a home at West Brattleboro in 1780. His son, also Rutherford, built at Dummerston before moving to Delaware, Ohio, where the president Rutherford Hayes was born in 1822.

On his 1877 return visit, Hayes stayed with his cousin William Bigelow in West Brattleboro. Bigelow was said to be the wealthiest man in Vermont at one time. A large reception was held at the Brooks House in Brattleboro, and the time spent in Vermont restored Hayes’ outlook.

Vermont would retain a special place in Hayes’ life. After leaving office, he was a regular visitor. Some reports held that he had become engaged to Mary Ann Hayes Bigelow, who had been host to Hayes in 1877 with her husband William. The wedding had been delayed because of the death of Mary Ann’s son Russell, and Rutherford died before it could take place.

Hayes ordered Dummerston Granite shipped to Ohio from the family’s Vermont homestead and used it as the base for the stone that marks his and his wife’s grave.

Today Brattleboro’s Hotel Brooks is still open and operating as a shopping and dining destination.

Adams, Mass., 1897

Postcard showing statue of William McKinley at Adams, Mass.

Postcard showing statue of William McKinley at Adams, Mass.

Adams and North Adams, Mass., never had a better friend than William McKinley. His trade policies strengthened the textile industry and helped the Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company grow to be a world leader in textile manufacturing.

The Plunkett family, who owned the mills, invited McKinley to stay with them twice. In 1897 he was given the honor of laying the cornerstone for the Adams Free Library. To this day the library contains a chair that was especially constructed for McKinley for the occasion.

The Plunketts also arranged for him to give a speech to the thousands of attendees at the Hoosac Valley Agricultural Fair on Sept. 22, 1897.

McKinley would return to Adams for a week stay beginning June 21, 1899, during which he was treated more like royalty. He traveled through Holyoke, Westfield, Pittsfield and Springfield, encountering huge crowds at each.

It was North Adams that pulled out all the stops. The city erected a viewing stand for McKinley to watch a special parade that featured bands, school children, military units and mounted police. Pressed to give an impromptu speech, McKinley marveled at the prosperity manufacturing had brought to the area:

I know something about North Adams from my visit two years ago, but as I rode through the beautiful streets of your city today I must confess I was wholly unprepared to witness its splendid progress and prosperity.

When McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist in 1901, no town mourned the loss more than Adams. The town erected a statue in his honor that stands to this day in front of the library he dedicated. It was rededicated in 1903.

Poland Springs, Maine, 1921

The summer of 1921 was especially gay at the Poland Springs resort, which the Ricker family had been running in one form or another since 1793. Motor traffic had never been heavier, and the first week in August was filled with dancing, tennis and golf.

Poland Spring House

Poland Spring House

That week came to a climax with a visit from President and Mrs. Warren G. Harding, who had driven from Lancaster, N.H. There they had been staying with Harding’s secretary of war, John Wingate Weeks.

On Aug. 4, 1921, the Hardings arrived in Poland Springs for lunch after driving 200 miles from Lancaster and stopping at a sanitarium in Oxford, Maine. There the president promised World War I veterans, mostly suffering from gas attacks, that the government would do everything it could to help them.

He had asked that Poland Springs do nothing special for his visit, but the caddies were noticeably excited. The president and his wife ate lunch and then he played a round of golf. That night, Harding left from Portland for Washington on the presidential yacht Mayflower.

The Poland Springs resort is still open and still offering a challenging course for golfers.

Groton, Conn., 1952

President Harry Truman laying the keel for the USS Nautilus.

President Harry Truman laying the keel for the USS Nautilus.

On Saturday June 14, 1952, President Harry Truman visited the shipyard at Groton, Conn., to celebrate laying the keel for the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine ever built.

Truman, who ordered the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, said he hoped it would begin an age where the discoveries that fueled development of the atom bomb would be applied to industry in ways that would benefit society.

Truman envisioned planes and ships powered by atomic energy, as well as power plants driven by this inexpensive new generating process:

Such a possibility would revolutionize the technological basis of our civilization. It could provide the answer to the crying need for sources of power in the underdeveloped areas of the world. It could mean industrial development for areas now held back because they have no supply of coal, or oil, or waterpower.

Truman said he prayed the submarine would never have an enemy and be tied up someday as an historic relic of a threat of war long passed.”

While all Truman’s projections didn’t come to pass, the Nautilus is in fact tied up and open for tourists as a museum and library.

Of course Truman didn’t forget politics in his speech, praising Sen. William Bento for standing up to Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his red-baiting tactics.

Truman’s private journal hints at a more curmudgeonly president behind the hoopla. He wrote:

“Well here I am, Sunday evening all alone. Margaret came to the Great White Prison for the week end on Friday 13th. I went by train to Groton (rhymes with rotten) to speak on atomic energy for peace time use. Should have flown both ways but my staff decided that it would be bad weather going up. It wasn't.”

And of the frustrations of the White House life that was coming to a close, he said, “Lesson: Don't raise your boy to be President of the United States.”

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