Getting Hooked on Campaign Trains
I first became interested in campaign trains when, as the press secretary for a member of Congress, I was looking for ways to generate publicity about his re-election campaign. It turned out that there was a set of abandoned Amtrak tracks running across the state and through his district.
After confirming that the tracks were still usable, the congressman’s campaign manager found that they could rent a train from the Santa Fe railroad company, and we wound up conducting an old-fashioned whistle-stop train tour on those tracks. The train was comprised of two locomotives, a passenger car, and the same rear-platform car that was used by President Dwight Eisenhower, according to Santa Fe officials.
Who knew that you could rent an entire train just to go on a day trip half-way across the state? For someone who has played for hours on end with with a Lionel train set as a little boy, this was a dream come true.
Organizing a Campaign Train Trip
Ironically, the last people to campaign by train in the state were President Truman and New York Governor Thomas Dewey in 1948. As I helped plan our campaign train event, I read everything I could find about the train tours that they and others had done. Our 102-mile trip mimicked Truman’s and Dewey’s with public rallies at four depot stations, brief rear-platform speeches by the candidate, a band, decorations, and a traveling group of reporters.
Even though I had attended a variety of campaign events for different candidates over the years, I never had as much fun as I did helping to organize and implement this day-long event. Reading about them paled in comparison to the thrill of riding one. It was a high-point of my political career. In the aftermath of the congressman’s successful train trip and reelection to Congress, researching the history of campaign trains, and collecting what little memorabilia I could find about them, became my hobby, passion, and sometimes my obsession.
Much of what I was fortunate to find became important additions to my personal whistle-stop collection. They followed me faithfully when, during the course of my careers in politics, public relations, and real estate, my wife and I moved from the East Coast to the West Coast, from Northern California to Southern California, and back again to the East Coast (much to the satisfaction of the moving companies.)
I was apparently so obsessed with campaign trains that I recommended to the staff of successful congressional candidate that his victory party be based on a whistle-stop campaign theme, even though the event was not going to be held anywhere near a railroad depot.
The raised podium at the celebration was decorated to look like the rear-platform of a railroad car and the winning candidate addressed his supporters as if his “train” had just arrived at the local depot. I still have a memento from that faux retro whistle-stop event – a hand-painted “Victory Special” sign like those that hung on the back of real whistle-stop campaign trains.
Because I doubted that I would ever organize, ride or see another real campaign train, and it is so difficult to find memorabilia from them, I decided to live vicariously through other candidates, staff, and reporters who had traveled on the trains. Eager to share what I had learned from and about them, I wrote articles about their experiences for the Washington Post, American Journalism Review, and a magazine published by the American Political Items Collectors.
I continued to collect information, stories, and trivia about politicians and their use of the railroads. Along the way I discovered a rich, colorful, surprising, and remarkable history of campaign trains that I will be sharing in this blog and a website that will be launched soon.
Press and Pols Together
Some journalists liked to cover the train-riding politicians as much as people enjoyed coming from miles around to see and hear the candidates. Some journalists liked to cover the train-riding politicians as much as people enjoyed coming from miles around to see and hear the candidates.
Mary McGrory, then a columnist for the Washington Star, traveled on Adlai Stevenson’s 1956 whistle-stop train. She recalled the trip with fondness. “It was the poetry of campaigning,” McGrory said. “It was beautiful as we went through the Midwest, and the scenery was gorgeous. The trains were also fun. You could roam up and down the aisle in some sort of comfort, have a snack, and look out the window.”
Hazardous for Reporters
On occasion, campaign trains could be hazardous for reporters.
In 1948, the Truman campaign train was pulling into the depot at Berkeley, California. Merriam Smith of United Press leaned over the rail to catch a glimpse of the crowd. But he leaned too far, lost his balance, and fell off the train, landing on a steel guy wire.
Alarmed members of the welcoming committee thought he was dead. Smith recounted in his memoirs that “to get me out of the way they stuffed me into a telephone booth at the station. It turned out to be the only telephone within miles — we got a ten-minute beat on the story.”
Whistle-stopping candidates were often the targets of hecklers.
For example, in 1964, there was that time when Lady Bird Jouhnson’s campiagn train pulled out of a railroad station. A young supporter of LBJ rival Barry Goldwater carried a placard and chased the train down the tracks. One of Jonson’s daughters, Linda, who was standing on the rear platform, shouted to him that “You’ll never catch us. We’re in the 20th century and you’re in the 18th!”