By Mark McLaughlin
President Rutherford B. Hayes toured Lake Tahoe and Truckee in 1880.
Courtesy Mark McLaughlin
Editor’s Note: Part I may be found at TheTahoeWeekly.com.
[dropcap1]N[/dropcap1]ational elections in the United States these days have taken on the characteristics of a marathon race with a pitched pace that starts a year or two before the actual vote. The act of political campaigning where candidates tour cities and communities across the country began in the 19th Century when prerequisites like property and tax qualifications were eliminated as a voting requirement. It created an electorate of mostly free, white males that eventually grew to encompass most Americans.
“President Hayes and his VIP guests were safely ensconced on the way down to the lake since they declared the ride to be the ‘pleasantest and wildest they ever took’.”
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. Ulysses S. Grant left office in 1877, but in 1879 the former, two-term president was wrapping up a world tour with his wife and son as he considered entering the 1880 presidential race. Grant had been well received in many foreign capitals during his tour and his rousing public speeches had resurrected his political currency. When he arrived by train in Truckee in October 1879, Grant was greeted by an excited crowd on Commercial Row.
Hundreds of additional supporters came out at Tahoe City and in western Nevada as he toured Lake Tahoe and the Comstock mines during his multi-day visit. Despite strong public support for Grant to run for a third term, his popularity among the Republican Party had faltered due to repeated scandals in his administration and he lost the nomination.
After Grant left office, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes took the helm as chief of the executive branch. When it came time for President Hayes to campaign for a second term, he, too, made sure to visit the Comstock, Lake Tahoe and Truckee. The commander in chief was traveling with famed Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman, who had served under Gen. Ulysses Grant, commander of the Union Army. Sherman had been honored for his outstanding military strategy during that brutal conflict, but also received harsh criticism for his scorched earth policy and devastating rampage through Georgia.
During a tour of California in the late 1840s, Sherman had ridden his horse into the Sierra to see where a transcontinental railroad could be built over the rugged range. Upon his return, he famously said that the construction project was impossible, but if ever accomplished it would take “the work of giants.” Incredibly, just 20 years later, passenger trains were running over Donner Pass. It turned out that the giants Sherman had alluded to turned out to be thousands of diminutive, hard-working Chinese laborers.
Hayes’ westbound campaign train first stopped in Reno, where the entourage boarded the Virginia and Truckee Railroad for Virginia City. After his tour of the mining district, the party headed for Carson City where handsome stagecoaches and a bevy of leading residents awaited to take them to Glenbrook, Nev., on Lake Tahoe’s East Shore. When the stages reached the summit of the Carson Range overlooking the Tahoe Basin, the passengers boarded the Lake Tahoe Railroad. This narrow-gauge, short line operation was part of timber baron Duane L. Bliss’ massive logging operation to supply the Comstock mines.
The Lake Tahoe Railroad was not designed for passenger traffic, but during the summer months the cars were often crowded with sightseers. Although the views were spectacular, the steep angle of the terrain posed serious risk to people hanging on to the outside of the cars. One can assume that President Hayes and his VIP guests were safely ensconced on the way down to the lake since they declared the ride to be the “pleasantest and wildest they ever took.”
At Glenbrook, Hayes and Sherman inspected Bliss’ massive wood mills where many of Tahoe’s old-growth trees were being sawed into lumber. From there, they boarded the small steamship “Meteor” for a nautical tour along the East and North shores of Big Blue. The Sacramento Daily Union reported that the boat was thoroughly decorated with bunting, evergreens and flowers. On the front of the pilothouse was a large, framed picture of the president, which greatly pleased the chief executive.
A large, enthusiastic crowd met the presidential party at the wharf in Tahoe City where they were escorted to the “Big Bonanza,” the same fancy excursion stagecoach owned by Truckee Hotel owner J.F. Moody that had carried Ulysses Grant during his visit just 11 months before.
President Hayes reached Truckee on Sept. 9, 1880, where he was greeted by local dignitaries and California Gov. George C. Perkins. Both Hayes and Sherman thrilled the crowds with short, but rousing patriotic speeches.
By all accounts it was a celebrated event with the Truckee Republican reporting: “The whole affair went off smoothly and satisfactorily to all concerned.” As the train departed for Sacramento, people called out for the president’s wife Lucy. When she appeared alongside her husband waving as the locomotives picked up speed, the crowd went crazy.
When President William McKinley came through Truckee on May 25, 1901, his visit was brief, but it elicited heartfelt emotions. After McKinley greeted cheering locals from the rear platform of the train, the Truckee Republican gushed: “His brief stop in Truckee will be cherished with a grateful, happy sense of satisfaction and pride by all who saw him and memory of his kind face will not fade with the passing years but live to stimulate love, loyalty and devotion to the highest office of our land.” The editor must have been extremely disappointed when McKinley was assassinated less than four months later, one of three future or active presidents who have visited the Truckee-Tahoe region that were later killed in office. (The other two were President James A. Garfield and candidate John F. Kennedy.)
Vice President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt became president after McKinley’s death and he, too, visited Truckee, arriving on May 19, 1903. His train was met by the largest crowd that had ever assembled at the depot. He was presented with fresh trout from Donner Lake, as well as a fine, Indian-woven basket. According to reports, he was extremely happy with his gifts and the people of 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