On Jan. 17, our 44th President, Barack Hussein Obama, revived a tradition that has been dormant for 56 years - he took a train to his inauguration.
Accompanied by his wife (on her 45th birthday) and family, and the family of his VP, Joe Biden, Obama rolled along the 137-mile route Abraham Lincoln took to his inauguration nearly 150 years earlier - from Philadelphia to Washington D.C.
Undeterred by the cold, family groups stood at the crossroads all along the route. Some waiting for hours, simply to wave at the train as it passed on its historic mission - to deliver our first black president into the highest post in the land.
One woman, with a 10-day-old baby in her arms, said to a reporter, "I just wanted to be able to tell him when he grew up, 'you were there. You were there when President Obama passed by.'"
In Wilmington, Delaware, 8,000 citizens cheered him on. In Baltimore, Obama got off the train to speak, pledging to restore America's dignity and acknowledging the challenges ahead.
Obama said, "Our Founding Fathers were willing to put all they were and all they had on the line - their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor - for a set of ideals that continue to light the world: That we are equal. That our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness come not from our laws, but from our maker. And that a government of, by, and for the people can endure."
By the time you read this, President Obama will have repeated the 41 words in the Presidential Oath of Office and will be swapping his inaugural journey of 23 months for an uncertain presidential tenure.
The last president to travel to his inauguration by train was Dwight D. Eisenhower, on Jan. 18, 1953. Bob Withers, expert on presidents and trains, reports that Ike's Pennsylvania Railroad special from New York, "left an hour late because he was still writing his inaugural address."
Withers, a native of Huntington, W.V., remembers seeing Eisenhower riding on the Baltimore and Ohio line during his presidential campaign in 1952. He writes in The President Travels by Train: Politics and Pullmans (TLC Publishing), "The golden age of presidential train travel was introduced by Franklin Roosevelt. During his 12 White House years, Roosevelt set the all-time record of 243,827 miles by rail, most of them at a leisurely pace, wandering through America, luxuriating in the vast beauty, campaigning, inspecting Depression-era projects and, later, defense plants."
Train travel was the main mode of genial transportation before airplanes took over in the early '60s. I remember taking the Northern Pacific from Yakima to Seattle in the '50s to visit grandparents Dora and Lawrence Harmon for Christmas. Sometimes avalanches stopped us in our tracks.
According to an account in the Washington State Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation, Theodore 'Teddy' Roosevelt, our 26th president and fifth cousin of FDR, actually visited my home town of Yakima - then North Yakima - on May 25, 1903, by train.
Teddy was the first president to visit the Yakima Valley and "residents from throughout the area flocked to the Northern Pacific Depot to greet him." The president, accompanied by Washington Gov. Henry McBride (1856-1937), was "taken by open carriage through streets festooned with bunting and lined with flag-waving citizens." The Yakima Herald proudly called North Yakima's executive planning committee "of no inferior ability" to the committees planning for Roosevelt's visits to Seattle and Tacoma.
Roosevelt and his entourage had arrived in Seattle (by steamer on May 23) where he emphasized "the importance of conservation, the importance of Alaska, and the importance of Seattle's key role as a gateway to Alaska." (I wonder how those Seattlelites felt about that job?)
The Yakima Herald reported that the crowd welcoming Roosevelt into Yakima was 10,000 strong - not bad for a town of 3,500 - explaining that "never before in the history of this city's existence was congregated within its corporate limits such a mass of humanity."
Irrigation was a hot topic at the time (the more things change, the more they stay the same) and it is noted that "The president and his party will be presented with several boxes of Yakima's choicest apples. The Yakima County Horticultural Union has taken the matter in hand and are now busy searching for the handsomest varieties to be found. The apples will be wrapped separately in paper wrappers on which will be printed the following: 'Yakima Valley Apples, Grown by Irrigation.'"
Roosevelt singled out veterans who fought with him in the Spanish American War. Then, "While leaving the speakers stand the president, who up to this time had refused to shake hands with any of the people, came face to face with several of the Yakima Indians gaily bedecked in their war paint and eagle feathers, and wearing many colored blankets. They had come to see the 'Great Father of the white man, the Hyas Tyee,' and in recognition of this fact the president extended his hand."
Roosevelt stayed just 45 minutes. North Yakima and the surrounding towns had pooled together $450 to pay for decorations and the grandstand, which amounted to $10 for every minute of the visit. The reports indicate there was perhaps "a nagging suspicion that they might have overspent."
Perhaps you know that our Peninsula has its own claim to fame in the railroad world - our Clamshell Railroad, built by Lewis Alfred Loomis, one of the Peninsula's founding fathers. Construction of the railroad, by Loomis's Ilwaco Railroad and Navigation Company, began in March of 1888 at the Ilwaco wharf.
According to notes posted by Depot Restaurant owners Michael Lalewicz and Nancy Gorshe, "Steamers could only reach the wharf after the tide was in mid-flood. So train departures were successively later over a month's time. It is likely that the Ilwaco line was the only organized railroad to operate by a tide table, thus its nickname, the 'Clamshell Railroad.'"
Our railroad ran from Ilwaco Harbor to Nahcotta - 13.5 miles - and carried mail, business passengers, and freight until it was closed in 1930. Over 1,000 sacks of oysters were transported each week from Nahcotta to Ilwaco to be sent on to Astoria. (Notes indicate that "since Thursday was oyster day, most citizens with business in Astoria generally avoided that day.")
I asked Sydney Stevens, Peninsula historian, if any presidents ever rode our Clamshell Railroad. Sydney wrote, "I don't know of any dignitaries who rode the local narrow gauge railroad except maybe Lewis Alfred Loomis, himself. He was the transportation mogul who founded the rail line, initially to take the place of his stage line along the weatherbeach. He was a familiar figure at the turn of the 19th/20th century in his black frock coat and soft wide-brimmed hat and carrying his gold-headed walking stick - maybe the Peninsula's closest claimant to the title 'tycoon.'"
On the subject of overspending, the price tag for Obama's inauguration may top $150 million. There will be 8,000 police on-hand for security, 5,000 Porta-Potties, and 10 inaugural balls. Word on the street is that 2 million people will be there. Only 240,000 are official ticket holders and two of these lucky ones are our Chinook Observer editor Matt Winters and his daughter, Elizabeth. We're hoping for a full report.
It's possible that Obama will make a magnificent president, but he can't do it without us. "Starting now, let's take up in our own lives the work of perfecting our union," Obama told the crowd gathered for his sendoff at Philly's historic 30th Street train station. "Let's make sure this election is not the end of what we do to change America, but the beginning and the hope for the future."