In an era of fast-paced big-city politics, it may seem odd to us younger folks that presidential campaigns regularly visited small towns across America.
Prior to the Civil War, it was uncommon for a presidential candidate to personally campaign. This was partially due to a notion that campaigning was not becoming of a candidate, that it was a dirty job best left to party leaders. This idea was destroyed during President Harrison’s 1840 “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too!” campaign. The other factor was that long-distance travel was simply difficult. Railroads were still in their youth and limited mostly to the east coast. The two primary means of travel were the horse and carriage, limited by poor roads and the rest necessary for the horses, and the steamboat, limited to towns along major rivers.
After the Civil War, this all changed. The railroad industry exploded, linking towns large and small across every state in the nation. The result was the “whistle-stop” campaign, wherein candidates traveled by special cars attached to the back of regular trains and made short speeches every time the train stopped. For the Ohio River Railroad, later the B&O, this would’ve meant stops at Letart, Graham Station, New Haven, Hartford, Mason, Clifton, West Columbia, Maggie, Linn (York), Locust Lane (Heights), Point Pleasant, Henderson, Gallipolis Ferry, Ben Lomond, Hogsett, Apple Grove, Mercer’s Bottom, Ashton, and Glenwood. 19 stops, and that doesn’t even include the Kanawha & Michigan line!
Up through World War II, this was a common campaign strategy for presidential candidates, as it really let them get out among the people and make their name known. But, like the railroad had replaced the steamboat, it was eventually replaced by the automobile and airplane. The combination of the two worked to drive modern campaigns toward major cities, as candidates could now fly to central locations and the people could come to them. This only intensified with the current rise of social media.
The first known presidential candidate to visit Mason County was, and remains, one of the most famous presidents of all time. “Dee-lighted!” to meet anybody and everybody, ex-President Theodore Roosevelt was seemingly trying to do just that during his 1912 Bull Moose campaign, having just finished a 5-state tour of the upper Midwest when he swung east towards West Virginia. In Huntington, his train car was attached to B&O Train #710, which included every stop previously named. In fact, WVU owns a wonderful photo of Teddy at Point Pleasant’s Union Station.
The next to come through Mason County was one that, fittingly, has family ties to the area. William Jennings Bryan, the Great Commoner, was the grandnephew of Major Andrew and Parthenia Bryan of Five Mile. His grandparents, John and Nancy Bryan, were originally buried in the Arrington-Long Cemetery in Gallipolis Ferry before they were removed to Scott Depot. He was a candidate during the 1896, 1900, and 1908 elections, though his trip here wasn’t until much later, during the 1924 election, which ran John W. Davis of West Virginia for president and Charles Bryan (William’s brother) for Vice-President.
In 1920, after a near derailment on the Mill Creek trestle in Millwood, Senator Warren Harding made known whistlestops at Mason and Point Pleasant and likely stopped at other towns as well. Like any good politician, he was quick to use this to his advantage, proclaiming at Mason that he would protect them from the Democrats’ “derailments.”
One that many locals remember is also one that almost didn’t happen. On September 24, 1952, General Dwight Eisenhower was on his way from Huntington to Wheeling with no stops scheduled in between. However, Bartow Jones, who was then a state senator, convinced the politicians to make a whistlestop in Point Pleasant. Of course, they didn’t know that Jones also had a backup, a bull-dozer that he had planned to park across the tracks if they said no! Luckily, that wasn’t necessary. Eisenhower stopped here for 15 minutes, and many students were bused over to see him.
Not too long after, in 1960, Mason County had quite a few campaign visits! On April 18, Ted Kennedy made stops in Point Pleasant, Mason, Hartford, and New Haven while campaigning for his brother. According to a story passed down to me by Janet Ewing, he ate lunch with the Newtons in Hartford and was mistaken for his brother, JFK, while riding around town in their open-topped car. This was followed up by Robert Kennedy’s visit to Point Pleasant on May 8. Humbert Humphries, Kennedy’s rival for the Democratic ticket, also visited. On May 4, he stopped in Henderson, spoke at the farewell ceremonies for the Showboat Majestic, and visited Tu-Endie-Wei before continuing his campaign tour.
I’m sure a closer reading of the old Register papers would find other campaign visits, but that is something to be saved for future articles and/or books.
Information from the WV State Archives, WV History OnView, Eisenhower Presidential Library, Huntington Herald-Dispatch, and “Images of America: Mason County.”
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.