By Mark McLaughlin
President Ulysses Grant visited Truckee-Tahoe in 1879. | Library of Congress
“It’s quite remarkable considering the area’s relative remoteness and small population that a significant number of former, future or active chief executives have made it a point to visit the Truckee-Tahoe region.”
We still have more than a year to go before the 2016 presidential election, but candidates are already running hard to position themselves as the strongest choice for their political party’s national convention next summer. They will log thousands of miles as they crisscross the country making stump speeches, shaking hands and kissing babies.
Political campaigning is an old tradition in the United States dating back to the early 19th Century when prerequisites like property and tax qualifications were eliminated as a voting requirement. The liberalization of the law gave the right to vote to most free, adult, white men. This development turned the political system around. Instead of lobbying among their relatively wealthy peers for local, state or federal positions, candidates now had to take their message to the voting public.
It’s quite remarkable considering the area’s relative remoteness and small population that a significant number of former, future or active chief executives have made it a point to visit the Truckee-Tahoe region. The most recent was 18 years ago when President Bill Clinton took an environmental tour of Lake Tahoe to learn about Big Blue’s troubled aquatic environment. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore spent two days here in July 1997. The Lake Tahoe Presidential Forum resulted in a doubling of federal spending to $50 million for better managing the Tahoe environment. The media exposure and increased political awareness of ecological issues facing our region was priceless.
Clinton’s predecessor at the White House, George H.W. Bush, didn’t come to work, but he did spend time at Lake Tahoe as a guest of casino mogul Steve Wynn. On a different trip, Bush’s vice president, Dan Quayle, participated in South Lake Tahoe’s annual Celebrity Golf Tournament.
When he was young, John F. Kennedy’s family vacationed at Lake Tahoe and the future president appreciated the region’s natural beauty. In 1960 while campaigning for president, an office that he would win in November of that year, Kennedy flew to western Nevada for a campaign stop in Carson City. After his speech to the legislature, Kennedy was driven to Lake Tahoe where some locals insisted that he met his friend and Cal Neva Casino owner Frank Sinatra. There is no solid proof that the two men met at the casino at that time. Other than his stump speech, Kennedy was primarily interested in seeing Big Blue and visiting Squaw Valley, site of the recently held 1960 Winter Olympics.
On his last visit to Nevada in 1963, just two months before his assassination, Kennedy gave a speech in Las Vegas where he thanked the Silver State’s two senators for voting for the first nuclear test ban he supported. President Kennedy also exhorted legislators to pass laws for the environmental protection of Lake Tahoe.
For most of its existence, Truckee has been a small town in mountain country. It has always been, however, a stop along the transcontinental railroad. In the 19th Century, before the advent of automobiles, politicians traveled by train or by stagecoach if they had to. Historical presidential visits to Truckee include Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Chester A. Garfield, Grover Cleveland and William McKinley. In a strange twist of fate, of the four American presidents who have been assassinated, three had visited Truckee.
Ulysses Grant was the first chief executive to visit Lake Tahoe and western Nevada. The former commander of the Union army during the Civil War, Grant left office in 1877 after serving two scandal-plagued terms. Grant himself was above reproach when it came to personal ethics, but many of his political appointees did not adhere to the code and widespread corruption was a hallmark of his Republican administration.
During Grant’s second term in office, the Democratically controlled House of Representatives, along with strong Republican support, passed a resolution against presidents serving a third term. Grant’s many supporters, however, wanted him to run again despite the measure and it was on the final leg of a world tour with his wife and one of his sons that the former president arrived by train in Truckee on Oct. 26, 1879.
Grant had not intended to stop in Truckee, but he was interested in seeing Lake Tahoe, Virginia City and Carson City. The train was late as Grant had requested breaks along the way from Sacramento to more closely inspect the wooden snowsheds on Donner Pass and to take in the views of Donner Lake. When the train reached Truckee, Grant saw Commercial Row colorfully decorated with flags and banners and crowds of enthusiastic residents dressed in their finest Sunday attire.
The town of Truckee turned out in full and hundreds cheered when Grant emerged from his special passenger coach. He smiled at the crowd as the local fire department band played patriotic songs. Grant shook hands with dignitaries like Truckee Hotel owner J.F. Moody, lawyer and businessman C.F. McGlashan, and other leading residents. The Truckee Republican newspaper reported: “As the party stepped from the Palace Car, Moody’s magnificent excursion stagecoach the ‘Big Bonanza’ stood waiting to receive them.” The coach, pulled by six of Moody’s finest horses, had been tastefully decorated with flags and evergreen branches.
As the stagecoach made its way along the Truckee River to Tahoe City, Grant took the reins for a portion of the trip. At the lake, the former president and his family boarded the steamer “Meteor” for an excursion down the West Shore. After a brief visit to the McKinney estate, the boat turned for Glenbrook near South Lake Tahoe. Two other steamers loaded with exuberant passengers escorted the “Meteor” and its popular cargo across the lake.
Upon arrival in Glenbrook, Grant rode a narrow-gauge logging train to Spooner Summit. At the summit, several stagecoaches met the party for the ride to Carson City. Holding the reins for Grant’s coach was none other than Hank Monk, the celebrated driver and yarn spinner from Carson City. After spending the night at Gov. John Kinkead’s home, which served as the Governor’s Mansion, Grant boarded the Virginia & Truckee Railroad for Virginia City, Nevada’s largest community at the time. After three days touring the Comstock mines, the Grants took the V&T to Reno where they caught a Central Pacific express to their home in Galena, Illinois.
Stay tuned for Part II to read which other presidents found time to visit Truckee.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at [email protected] Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com, or read more Sierra Stories at TheTahoeWeekly.com.