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Every effective politician understands the importance and tone of public contact. From the first, presidents, as the nation’s chief magistrates, have recognized the need to leave the White House and mingle with the voters, especially when an election is in the offing. President Grover Cleveland was a Democrat in a largely Republican nation. His opponents had held the White House with little trouble for almost a quarter century beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861. Loss of it to Cleveland in 1884 was devastating, and the Republicans planned to regain the presidency in 1888.

When Grover Cleveland set out to thwart the Republican assault, he could reflect on several goodwill tours. But they were too parochial—a visit home to Clinton, New York, or to Philadelphia. Cleveland was not at all well traveled and had rarely been outside of New York State before he became president. Sometime in May 1887, a delegation from St. Louis visited him in Washington, D.C. Its members pressed him so persistently to make a visit to St. Louis that he agreed, saying perhaps he would do so in the fall. He discussed the idea with his secretary, Colonel Daniel Lamont. As secretary, Lamont acted as chief of staff. He was also an intelligent, efficient, and, most of all, extremely loyal aide to the commander in chief, with a shrewd knowledge of press relations.

That Cleveland had remained so close to home surely at least in part reflected the general concern over presidential safety and public appearances, the assassination of James A. Garfield having taken place only six years before. Cleveland and Lamont talked about a “grand tour” as far as the Pacific Northwest. On this tour they would spend some time camping out in Yellowstone. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, they thought, to be in clean wilderness air away from soggy and smoggy Washington? As the planning went ahead, the trip was pared back to a little over three weeks. There was not time for the Far West, but the Midwest and the South could be incorporated into a 5,000-mile journey that went as far north as St. Paul, and as far west as Omaha, and as far south as Montgomery, Alabama. There were longtime precedents for such trips; nearly every president since and including George Washington had considered such journeys part of their official business.

The assistance of George Pullman was enlisted to assemble a suitable train. A part-time resident of Washington, he was delighted to be of service and was eager to make friends with those in positions of power. Cleveland made it clear he would pay all costs; as a reform politician he would not consider any arrangement that even hinted at patronage. Pullman offered his personal private car, the P.P.C., for the carriage of the president and his wife. He also insisted that they have the service of his best steward, Arthur Wells. The cook was Tobias, a favorite of the general manager of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Two cars would complete the train—the first was the Alfarata, a combined smoker, barber shop, baggage, and bathroom car normally operated on the Chicago Limited, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s fastest train. The final car was the Pullman sleeper, Velasco, which featured ten open section sleeping berths, a smoking room, and a buffet. The Alfarata and Velasco were just a few months old, but Pullman had them backshopped to freshen up the paint and gold striping. The P.P.C., which were the initials of the Pullman Palace Car, was a veteran dating back to 1877 but, as Pullman’s own vehicle, it was kept in a perfect state of repair. Even so, for this trip, it received new upholstery in gen d’orne blue and a copper-colored plush. The interior paneling of bird’s-eye maple, mahogany, and cherry was varnished to a heightened sheen.

Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Station (also called Pennsylvania Station) in Washington, D.C., in the 1880s, where President Grover Cleveland's tour departed from.

Library of Congress

Two days before the departure date of September 30, the cars were brought to Pennsylvania Station in Washington, located on the Mall where the National Gallery of Art now stands. Pullman rode to Washington in the P.P.C. and visited the White House to assure the president that everything was ready for his trip, down to the fresh-cut flower arrangements in each car. A final cleaning of the cars was under way as the presidential party entered the station just before 10:00 in the morning. It was not a large party, consisting of Colonel Lamont, Wilson S. Bissell, and Dr. Joseph G. Bryant, all friends of Cleveland, and F. T. Bickford of the Associated Press, P. V. DeGrove of the United Press, and William A. Rogers, an artist with Harper’s Weekly. The train was an “extra” with priority rights over all other trains. As a precaution, a pilot train would precede the Presidential Special by a few minutes.

Mrs. Cleveland was the only woman in the party. Twenty-eight years younger than her husband, Frances Folsom Cleveland had traveled more widely than the president and benefited from a better education. And she had sharp political instincts. For example, her wardrobe was of great interest to the society editors of newspapers but she declined to discuss it, preferring to surprise the audiences on the tour. Wearing a brown silk suit with white and red trim on the day of the departure, she made quite a show walking down the station platform, pausing to shake hands with cabinet members and nodding to friends who stood by to see the president off.

The engineer, Francis Carver, in the cab of Locomotive 46, waited for the conductor, C. A. Haverstick, to signal the go-ahead. Carver told reporters this was the proudest day in his life, but the conductor was less impressed. He called out “All Aboard” with no enthusiasm. As the train steamed slowly ahead, the president stood inside the ornate iron platform railing at the rear of the P.P.C., waving good-bye to the crowd.1

Harper’s Weekly (the “Journal of Civilization”) was published every Tuesday from 1857 to 1916. This illustration from the magazine documents the president’s train trip to the West and through the south. The issue was published October 8, 1887, and sold for ten cents a copy.

Harper's Weekly/ White House Historical Association

The train passed through Baltimore, York, Pennsylvania, and on to Harrisburg. At each station along the way large and small groups gathered to see the train pass; the president stood in view, waving or bowing slightly to acknowledge their presence. The sun had set when the train reached the hamlet of Grapeville about 20 miles east of Pittsburgh and suddenly halted. The president and his wife, Frances, whom he—and most of the world—called “Frankie,” were escorted to the rear platform. There was a great roar of steam sounding like the exhaust of an impatient ocean liner. In the blackness of the night a Roman candle arched upward and ignited a flame 10 feet wide and 100 feet tall, lighting the countryside in an eerie and beautiful fashion. It was a tribute arranged especially for the presidential train by a gas pipeline manager in the town. After a grateful pause, the train pulled on into Pittsburgh.

This was farther west than Grover Cleveland had ever traveled before. He praised the Pullman Company; the trip was going well and the president was happy to be on board. The train switched over to the tracks of the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis Railroad en route to the first major stop, Indianapolis. A thousand people were assembled at the station, hoping to see the president and the first lady, as the train rolled through Columbus at 4:30 a.m. Colonel Lamont explained that the first couple was asleep. The crowd was respectful and remained quiet. The train rolled along a single track. As it neared the Ohio-Indiana border, the sun came up over fields that were gray, empty, and dull and by contrast skirting woods that were glorious in shades of yellow, orange, red, and purple.

This illustration from Harper’s Weekly depicts the Clevelands viewing the illumination of the Bricker Natural Gas well at Grapeville near Pittsburg.

Harper's Weekly/ White House Historical Association

At 7:00 a.m. the president appeared on the rear platform while the train stopped at Bradford Junction. One hundred spectators were gathered at the depot. Cleveland called out a hearty “Good Morning.” Someone called back, “We would also like to see your wife.” The president explained she was still resting. The man replied, “Well, we are right glad to see you, sir.” “I thank you for that,” Cleveland responded, “but of the two I expect you would prefer to see Mrs. Cleveland.” For all their success, stops such as this one were not made to accommodate the curious locals but because of traffic on the line up ahead or because the engine needed water. Stops were also made about every hundred miles at division points, where the engines and crews were changed.

At about 8:00 a.m., October 1, the train arrived in Indianapolis, capital of Indiana. It was greeted at the station by the mayor and Democratic Senator Joseph E. McDonald. There was applause for the president, but shouts and cheers when his wife appeared. Frances Cleveland, dressed in green silk and carrying a bouquet of roses, smiled sweetly and won the day. A fine carriage pulled by eight gray horses and draped in the federal flag carried the presidential couple to the state capitol building, where they greeted and shook hands with about 20,000 well-wishers.

This illustration from the magazine depicts the President's reception at Indianapolis.

Harper's Weekly/ White House Historical Association

The Clevelands began driving around the city so as to be seen. Early in the afternoon they were received in the home of Eliza Hendricks, widow of Cleveland’s vice president Thomas Hendricks, who had died about nine months after taking office. Rain threatened, as the sun was intermittently covered by clouds. After more sightseeing, the presidential party was taken back to the station by 3:30 p.m. The train moved quickly to make up time for the next stop at Terre Haute. Here again there was a welcome by the mayor, speeches from a senator or former governor, followed by a rapid tour of the town with stops at the normal school and fairgrounds. The president, a competent if not inspired speaker, commented on the beauty of the area, the richness of soil, and the industry of its citizens. And then back to the station and off for the next stop. The excitement of the crowd and their enthusiasm were elevating but seemed less inspiring to the guests of honor as they grew weary.

The train now moved over Vandalia Line trackage toward St. Louis, where the hosts, the ones who had instigated this mad journey, awaited the arrival of the Presidential Special. This stop was a major event that would last nearly three days. Advance publicity was expected to attract half of Missouri and all of southern Illinois. The Clevelands were in for a celebrity workout of major proportions. The train reached East St. Louis at midnight and halted on the east approach to the Eads Bridge. The welcoming committee, which included Mayor David R. Francis and other city nabobs, ushered the president and his party into waiting carriages. The bridge was brilliantly lighted, dazzling the visitors with its magnificent span of the Mississippi River. A fleet of river steamers blew their whistles in an inharmonious roar that could be heard for 5 miles. A huge banner at the center of the bridge proclaimed, “Welcome to St. Louis.” The parade of carriages drew up in front of the Lindell Hotel, which would be home to the Clevelands during their stay.

This illustration shows the President's welcome to St. Louis.

Harper's Weekly/ White House Historical Association

October 2, day three of the trip, was rendered less hectic because it was Sunday. The president and first lady attended morning services at the Washington Street Presbyterian Church. A private luncheon was followed by a drive around town to see banners, flags, and portraits on nearly every building. They reviewed a Roman Catholic papal celebration parade. That chilly evening the official party gathered at the mayor’s home. His honor invited them into the dining room for something warm. Mrs. Cleveland, a devout temperance advocate, noticed the invitation was made with a wink. She responded boldly, “Yes, I think a cup of warm coffee would be just the thing.” The president, as a matter of fact, rather enjoyed ardent spirits and bypassed wine in favor of whiskey and water with his evening meal. But he said nothing to contradict his wife.

Early the next day at the Exposition Fairgrounds, 24,000 schoolchildren sang a chorus of welcome. At the end of the concert, five of the little ones presented a massive floral shield to Mrs. Cleveland. She hugged and kissed each of them. The ladies were taken to a private luncheon while the president was escorted to the Merchants Exchange, where he received an enthusiastic reception in the great hall. The cheers and applause were so generous and prolonged the normally stolid Cleveland was almost moved to tears. As he spoke, his remarks were repeatedly interrupted by applause. It may well have been the high point of his career. At a public reception at the Lindell Hotel late in the afternoon, some 20,000 passed through a receiving line to shake hands with the president and his wife.

Tuesday, October 4, was the final day in St. Louis, and it was also a long one. It began with a reception by Commercial Travelers Association, a popular jam with long lines of people wanting to greet the president. When one elderly lady attempted to kiss President Cleveland, he politely but firmly declined her advances. Later in the morning, the Clevelands were taken on a riverboat ride aboard the City of Baton Rouge, down river to the Jefferson Barracks. After returning to the city, it was off to the fairgrounds and an afternoon of trotting races. The evening was devoted to the Veiled Prophet Parade, a St. Louis tradition, in which, Mardi Gras style, a mysterious prophet is carried in an elaborate parade, his identity concealed by a mask until the climactic ball that ends the event. As midnight drew near, the presidential party was hurried from the dance to their train, which raced off for Chicago over the Alton Railroad.

This image shows the veiled prophet's pageant at St. Louis.

Harper's Weekly/ White House Historical Association

As the train steamed into Chicago a little after 9:00 a.m., men and boys recklessly climbed onto the locomotive, which had a large portrait of the president fastened to its headlight. A crowd of 40,000–50,000 filled the streets for blocks around the station. The president enjoyed this rousing reception, but his wife was frightened by the uncontrollable mob and headed directly to the Palmer House hotel to rest. Even though the pace of the trip was beginning to wear her down, she reappeared later in the day. She looked her best at the Columbia Theater reception that evening in a close-fitting, mistletoe green plush gown, cut moderately low and quaintly trimmed in lace. A diamond brooch and necklace completed her outfit. The theater was decorated with 70,000 roses. On Thursday morning, October 6, the president was shown the site of the deadly “anarchist” bombing that had taken place the year before, known as the “Haymarket” riot. He then visited the International Military Encampment at Washington Park, where a thundering artillery salute honored him.

The president and Mrs. Cleveland were then taken downtown to board the train for Milwaukee. They obliged the crowd’s call that they appear on the open rear platform of the P.P.C. The multitude yelled itself hoarse as the train pulled out and the nation’s CEO and his consort waved farewell to Chicago and its disorderly crowds.

The train reached Milwaukee, that sedate city of cream-colored bricks and hard-working German immigrants. It was early afternoon. The whole town turned out for a jolly reception at Schlitz Park. Luncheon at the Soldiers Home was followed by another public reception that lasted until 9:00 p.m. The reception was followed by a banquet at the Merchants Exchange. The latter was typically an all-male affair with endless toasts. Mrs. Cleveland, doubtless displeased, watched the heavy alcohol consumption from a balcony.

A depiction of the President reviewing the procession at the great auditorium building in Chicago.

Harper's Weekly/ White House Historical Association

The train left the next morning at 10:00 for Madison, the capital of Wisconsin. The ride was delightful, as the train passed through a charming section of mid-America notable for its lakes and green hills. In Madison the presidential couple spent several days at the home of William F. Vilas, the U.S. postmaster general who, with his wife, had established their home in Madison in the 1860s when he became a professor at the State University. Upon arrival, the circus began all over again, with the crowds and welcoming speeches. Cleveland’s right hand was aching so he kept both hands behind his back, bowing to individuals as they passed by in the receiving line. Many could not resist touching his garments. The president looked fit and alert. When his wife was asked about her health, she responded simply, “Never better.”

Saturday, October 8, was a day for rest at the Vilas’s home. The president spent part of the day fishing in nearby Lake Mendota in a rowboat that was towed out to the center by a small steam launch. He caught seven yellow bass. There was a reception later that day at the Vilas’s residence. Sunday was chilly and overcast with brisk southwest winds that kicked up whitecaps on the lake. The presidential couple slept in until late in the morning. They skipped church services and sat in a back parlor reading, enjoying a totally private day at home.

Upon arrival, the circus began all over again, with the crowds and welcoming speeches. Cleveland’s right hand was aching so he kept both hands behind his back, bowing to individuals as they passed by in the receiving line.

Monday, October 10, they were back on the train, joined by Mr. and Mrs. Vilas for the return to Washington on the Presidential Special. At stops in Portage, New Lisbon, Sparta, and Lake City, the president shook hands with as many as possible in the crowds gathered around the depots. A longer stop was made at LaCrosse, with a quick tour of town. The sun was low in the sky when the train steamed into St. Paul, Minnesota, originally called Pig’s Eye. Mrs. Cleveland had attended school there as a young girl. The president alluded to this early history by thanking the audience because “they had neither marred nor spoiled my wife.” As darkness fell, the toboggan and snowshoe clubs paraded in their picturesque costumes. Another long day ended with a reception at the Ryan Hotel.

After a brief swing through nearby Minneapolis, the party headed for Omaha and into parts of North America that had rarely seen a president. Small town people were curious about anyone who was a celebrity. They sat or stood for hours waiting for the train to pass by or better yet, stop for a few minutes. Tank towns had the best hope for a close-up view of the presidential couple because the locomotive needed a drink every 25 miles or so.2 The train drew up to one such place, and a shy blond girl lifted up a bunch of goldenrod with a pink note; this modest floral trophy was for President Cleveland and his lady. There were bonfires at night near the track, and bands played on station platforms as the train slid by. Crowds cheered and waved.

Harper’s Weekly (the “Journal of Civilization”) was published every Tuesday from 1857 to 1916. The issue was published October 8, 1887, and sold for ten cents a copy.

Harper's Weekly/ White House Historical Association

Early on Wednesday morning, October 12, the train made a short stop at Sioux City so the party could visit the famous Corn Palace, a curious structure built entirely of corn stalks, husks, and corn silk, except for the wooden frame. A giant map of the United States was constructed from colored corn kernels. The visit to Omaha included a parade by the Second Infantry and the Knights of Pythias, pupils from the Indian School and its brass band.

That evening, the presidential train pulled into Kansas City and witnessed another parade. On Thursday morning, a carriage tour of the city was arranged. The president participated in laying the cornerstone for a new YMCA building, which included a speech and more hand-shaking. Later in the day there was a reception at the Customs House. The fraternal Priests of Pallas staged a parade that evening. At its conclusion, the presidential party returned to the train and headed south, with Memphis the next major destination. Reconstruction had ended a decade earlier, and the cities of the South were well along in recovering from the ravages of the late war. Were they ready to receive a Yankee president, even though a Democrat?

An illustration of the President's welcome to Memphis.

Harper's Weekly/ White House Historical Association

On Friday morning, October 14, the train passed through Springfield, Missouri, at 5:30 a.m. Four hours later it crossed over the Ozark Mountains and entered Arkansas. The president was now in the former Confederacy. The tour members were enjoying a late breakfast. At every town and crossroads, the feeling of welcome and friendship was manifest. The locals seemed extremely pleased to see their president pass by, damn Yankee or not. In the afternoon the train pulled up at West Memphis on the Mississippi River.

A handsome side-wheeler, the celebrated Kate Adams, stood ready at the river landing. It shimmered bright, its white paint and frosting of Gothic woodwork making it resemble a gigantic wedding cake. On board the steamboat a welcoming committee of about one hundred included senators, the mayor, Democratic party leaders, and other prominent people of the region. The main cabin was decorated with baskets of flowers gathered from as far as 100 miles away. The boat steamed past the city’s 3 mile long riverfront as Memphis citizens waved handkerchiefs and shouted greetings from the levee and bluffs. Cannons in front of the Customs House fired salute after salute. At least 60,000 witnessed the landing of the presidential party. A larger crowd assembled that evening for a fireworks display, and upward of 100,000, including many thousand African Americans, were expected at the grand parade on the following day. A black member of the city council, Lymans Wallace, was part of the official welcome committee.

The first image shows The President calling on Mrs. Polk at Polk Place in Nashville, and the second image shows the President viewing the deer at Belle Meade.

Harper's Weekly/ White House Historical Association

Saturday was occupied by a tour of the city and an outdoor ceremony in Court Square. The old Confederate politician—although a New Jersey native—Judge Henry T. Ellett was the speaker. During the president’s response, he was interrupted by the sudden illness of the judge, who was led from the speaker’s platform and died a short time later. The program of the day continued without him, and a very enthusiastic reception was held at the Merchants Exchange.

On Sunday, October 16, the Presidential Special rolled toward Nashville, about 200 miles from Memphis. Six miles west of the state capital, the train stopped late in the morning at Belle Meade, the largest stock breeding farm in the nation. This 5,300 acre farm was owned by General W. H. Jackson, who was the host of the Clevelands and Colonel Lamont until Monday. He had greatly enlarged the bathing facilities for the guest room so the president could enjoy his vigorous shower. The other passengers were taken into Nashville to stay at a hotel. Belle Meade, with its old-fashioned columned mansion, was an exceptional farm that featured its own private deer park and herd. After lunch, the Clevelands were driven into the city to visit Sarah Childress Polk, widow of former President James K. Polk. She was still remembered at 84 as a strong first lady who had been her husband’s political partner forty years ago in the White House. She loved to speak of old times, remembering the early white settlement of Tennessee as well as her brilliant, though hard-liquor-free White House during the Mexican War. Upon her husband’s retirement in 1849, the Polks had made a grand tour of the South, so she knew the touring task well. She was almost a national monument, called upon by nearly every distinguished visitor to Nashville.

The President's reception at the Capital City Club Atlanta.

Harper's Weekly/ White House Historical Association

On Monday, October 17, a formal reception for the president was staged on the public square in downtown Nashville. After this event subsided, Mrs. Cleveland held a reception in a prominent hotel, the Maxwell House, while her husband spoke at the statehouse on a hill overlooking the city and the Cumberland River. The White House party returned to the station and moved off toward Chattanooga. It was the beginning of the end of this cross-country marathon. Except for a few weary moments, the president held up well, while his wife—half his age—was more given to spells of fatigue.

About 30 miles east of Nashville, the Presidential Special passed through the former state capital and birthplace of Sarah Polk, Murfreesboro. It was raining by the time they reached Chattanooga, but the streets were crowded with people as the presidential party was driven through. Lookout Mountain loomed overhead in the mist. It was there a great battle had been fought in November 1863, which hastened the end of the Confederacy. But there was no time to visit Missionary Ridge. The tourists were hurried back to the depot and traveled east for Atlanta over the historic Western and Atlantic Railroad, site of the Great Locomotive Chase, an epic adventure of the Civil War.

In the top image, First Lady Frances Cleveland is seen looking out the window on her journey south.

Harper's Weekly/ White House Historical Association

The train slowed to a stop as it drew near Atlanta in the early evening; the sun dropped below Kennesaw Mountain. The self-proclaimed “Chicago of the South” was not to be outdone by any state capital the president had visited before it. A grand fireworks display was staged with red rockets and artillery salutes. The sky was bright in a glorious re-creation of Niagara Falls, 60 feet high and 150 feet long. As the cannons fired their final lordly booms, the train rolled away into the city in the rain; but rain or shine, the crowds waiting along the streets were determined to see their leader make his entry.

Atlanta was so thick with visitors that every hotel and rooming house bed was occupied. People slept in lobbies and hallways. Churches opened their doors to shelter the masses. When they were filled, those seeking a place to sleep sought shelter in empty railroad freight cars. The rain persisted, making Atlanta a sad and soggy place. On Wednesday morning at 10:00 Democratic Senator Alfred Holt Colquitt held a small breakfast for the presidential couple. Flower-bedecked carriages took the official party to the fairgrounds, escorted by cavalry and artillery soldiers. About 40,000 stood in the rain to greet the president. The military parade and mock battle planned as the entertainment of the day were delayed because of the weather. The president stayed in his carriage to witness the parade as the soldiers slipped and stumbled through the mud. The program was at last abandoned, and the carriages returned to the city. A luncheon occupied much of the afternoon. That evening a torchlight parade was given by the Young Men’s Democratic Club.

The trip was a public relations success. Everywhere the Clevelands appeared there were overwhelming expressions of enthusiasm and lavish civic hospitality.

The train left for Montgomery, Alabama, at midnight. Before it departed, an agent from South Florida brought grapes, oranges, lemons, pineapples, and jars of honey to decorate the dining table. A large mandarin orange tree was simply too big for the already crowded car and so was sent by express to Washington for the White House conservatory. The Presidential Special arrived at 8:00 a.m., to be greeted by Alabama Senators J. L. Pugh and J. T. Morgan. A military escort stood ready for the inevitable parade through the streets of Alabama’s capital, where the Confederacy had been born only twenty-six years before. Mrs. Cleveland was given a silver jewelry case by the mayor, in the shape of a cotton bale. The governor received the presidential party at the fairgrounds. At 1:00 p.m. the train left Montgomery to cross through Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia. Montgomery had been the final stop. The schedule called for no stops with the possible exception of Asheville, North Carolina, and there the train would tarry for no more than 15 minutes. It would run slowly wherever a crowd was gathered. The bonfires, torches, cheering, brass bands, and floral presentations continued as before. After twenty-three days on the road, the three-car Presidential Special rolled into Pennsylvania Railroad Station on the morning of October 22.

The trip was a public relations success. Everywhere the Clevelands appeared there were overwhelming expressions of enthusiasm and lavish civic hospitality. Public curiosity about the young and attractive wife was satisfied to some degree. The president exhibited stamina and a hearty and simple manner. His speeches were alike, clear, simple, and pleasant. He understood that much of the excitement was over seeing the president rather than in seeing Grover Cleveland. Yet for all its spectacle and the length of its reach, the trip did not assure his reelection one year later. Indiana Republican Benjamin Harrison would defeat him in the Electoral College. Yet perhaps some of the wave of voters that returned Cleveland to the presidency in 1893 remembered the grand tour of 1887.

This article was originally published in White House History Number 28 Fall 2010

Footnotes & Resources

  1. The story of Grover Cleveland’s railroad tour of September and October 1887 relies on accounts in the New York Times, Washington Post, Harper’s Weekly, and Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper for September through November 1887. Each of these sources followed the trip closely through correspondents on the scene.
  2. Locomotives use 6 pounds of water for every 1 pound of fuel.

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