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The Whistle Stops Don’t Stop Here Any More

Article by Ed Quillen

Local History – November 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

by Ed Quillen

These days, presidential campaigns don’t venture into Central Colorado. Pueblo, where Bill Clinton and Jack Kemp have both spoken this fall, is about as close as they get. Denver is a frequent stop — Bob Dole spoke there right after the Republican convention, and Clinton was at Red Rocks on Oct. 12. Grand Junction got a campaign visit in 1980 when Ronald Reagan’s plane touched down there.

But this relative isolation of Central Colorado from national politicians and their campaigns is rather recent. From 1880 to 1952, they came through often.

We can start with a visit in July of 1880 by Ulysses S. Grant, who rode the narrow-gauge rails west to Salida, then crossed Marshall Pass in a four-horse Sanderson stage to Gunnison and mining camps in Taylor Park. After returning to Salida, Grant proceeded to Leadville to assist in celebrating the arrival of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad.

He was met by five bands and a 100-gun salute, and delivered a short speech from a platform erected in front of the Clarendon Hotel.

Grant was an ex-president who had served two full terms (1869-77). So was this trip merely a vacation outing for a retired public servant, or was it a campaign trip?

Probably a campaign trip, at least in the sense of gathering publicity and demonstrating that Grant remained popular, despite the scandals during his presidential administration.

Grant wasn’t a declared candidate in 1880, but he didn’t object when his supporters began to promote a third term for him. His wife, Julia, wanted to return to the White House, and she assisted in the promotion. It didn’t work — the nomination went to James A. Garfield.

President Benjamin Harrison visited Leadville in 1891, and got the customary bands and parades. Leadville historian Ned Blair wrote that “The hope was, of course, that the president, visiting the silver West, would become more generous toward the silver interests.” He didn’t.

William Jennings Bryan was “generous toward the silver interests,” and he was the Democratic nominee for president in 1896, 1900, and 1908. He campaigned through Colorado on many occasions, and not always for national office.

On Oct. 28, 1902, he put in a busy day in Central Colorado, speaking in support of Democratic candidates for state office. He started in Alamosa with a short talk at 7 a.m. About an hour later, the train stopped in Hooper for another talk.

At Salida, the train stopped briefly to take on four Salida Democrats and a Leadville committee, then continued north.

Before it got to Nathrop, the train wrecked. J.F. Erdlen, editor of the Salida Mail, was riding in Bryan’s car. He reported that “Mr. Bryan sprang out of the car, and with the others soon learned that we had run into a caboose on the rear end of a freight train, which had been trying for some time to get on the switch at Arena [a siding].”

The caboose derailed, and injuries were limited to a few bruises and scratches.

Bryan arrived in Leadville during lunch hour, where thousands cheered his speech — his support of free silver had made him a hero to the miners.

The campaign special returned down the Arkansas, with short stops in Granite and Buena Vista, and Bryan delivered a speech to hundreds of people gathered in Salida at 4 p.m. [the scene captured in the photograph on page 39].

Bryan’s visit did not get much attention from the Republican Salida Record: The crowd’s “presence was a matter of curiosity just as it would be should any famous man visit the city,” and “His speech was principally on national issues in order to draw the attention of the people from the rottenness and incompetency of the Democratic state government.”

Erdlen of The Mail saw it otherwise. Bryan “made some of his best points here and stirred up the old-time enthusiasm of the people.”

After the Salida stop, Bryan visited Cañon City, Victor, Cripple Creek, and Florence — all before midnight. Whatever else you say about some politicians, they do not lack for energy.

Theodore Roosevelt came through Central Colorado on at least two occasions, but he was no his way to hunt, not out on a campaign (it must be said, though, that TR seldom made any public appearance that wasn’t political).

In 1901, when he was vice-president, he rode the Colorado Midland through this area, headed for Glenwood Springs, railhead for a mountain lion hunt near Meeker. As president in 1905, he returned, this time to hunt bear near New Castle, and he spoke at stops along the way — Buena Vista and Leadville.

Somehow, it’s difficult to imagine a modern president venturing into the wilds for three weeks of bear hunting. Roosevelt’s vacation, unlike other presidential visits, may have inspired a change in federal policy — shortly after he returned to Washington from the wilds of Colorado, he began to set aside tracts of public land that became part of the National Forest system.

Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, visited Central Colorado on Sept. 23, 1909. It wasn’t to campaign, but to celebrate.

Taft came for the grand opening of the Gunnison-Uncompahgre Tunnel, an early federal Bureau of Reclamation project which diverted water from the Gunnison River via a tunnel which began in the Black Canyon. The water went to irrigate fields in the Uncompahgre Valley near Montrose.

He rode the standard-gauge rails from Pueblo to Salida, where he boarded a narrow-gauge special to cross Marshall Pass for Gunnison and Montrose.

Taft was, shall we say, a man of substance — at least 300 pounds of substance, and the local Democratic wits speculated as to whether a small narrow-gauge locomotive could haul the heavy president over the pass.

There may have been presidential visits and campaigns in Central Colorado between 1909 and 1940, but if there were, I didn’t see them in a quick perusal of old newspapers, and nobody mentioned them when I asked around.

In 1940 or thenabouts, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke in Salida when his special train was crossing the continent.

“I remember seeing President Roosevelt,” says Opal Heister of Salida, who was in grade school then. “They told us to wear our Sunday best to school, and after classes started, they marched us all from McCray Elementary [it stood where the Salida Post Office is now] down to the railroad depot. The school band played, and the president’s train came in. He came out to the platform and talked for a few minutes. For the life of me, I can’t remember what he said, but I do remember seeing him.”

Suppose you picked up the local paper and saw “Jack Kemp Will Speak Here Next Week, President Clinton Coming 3 Days Later.”

That wouldn’t happen now, when candidates focus on the major media markets and can get there on jets without the annoyance of train stops in the hinterlands. But it did happen then — that headline is essentially what Salidans saw in the Mail on Sept. 9, 1948. The Republican vice-presidential nominee was coming on Sept. 17, and the Democratic incumbent president was due on Sept. 20.

Earl Warren, then governor of California and the Republican vice-presidential nominee (and later, Chief Justice of the United States), spoke in Salida on Sept. 17.

His eastbound special train arrived at 1 p.m. Charles Morris, the county Republican chairman, had boarded it in Malta (Leadville’s railroad junction west of town) and got to talk with the candidate en route to Salida.

No record of that conversation has been preserved, but political old-timers tell me that these meetings seldom concerned great affairs of state, and usually concerned patronage appointments, such as postmasterships, as well as pork-barrel matters, like roads and water projects.

Warren was greeted with a band and several bouquets of flowers by a crowd estimated at 5,000. His train stopped for about 20 minutes (all trains stopped for a few minutes in Salida then to change crews and service the locomotives). Much of that was taken up with introductions — every Republican candidate wanted to be seen on the platform with Warren — and then Warren delivered a brief speech.

“The West is an entity,” Warren said, and “We want it to be an entity within an entity — a greater entity of course.” Warren promoted conservation of water and development of minerals, which would “strengthen the nation” and “broaden the tax base.”

Before assuring Coloradans that his candidacy was not part of a secret California plot to steal Colorado’s water, Warren promoted the top man on the ticket: “I know that when Governor Dewey is President of the United States that he will give this country an efficient government. He will give it a humane government. He will give it a forward-looking government. He will face every day’s problem at that time. He won’t vacillate. He will strike these immediate problems like the cost of living [coffee was 20¢ a pound at Safeway and tomatoes were 75¢ a bushel at Oxford’s Market], the housing situation, and all of our other domestic problems. He will hit those problems head on, and he has the character and ability to do that.”

The Republican train steamed east, and three days later, the westbound 17-car Democratic presidential special chugged into Salida.

The campaign trip had started in Denver that day, as Truman addressed a rally at the state capitol. Truman said he didn’t have anything against the Republicans who might live next door, but “Something always happens to Republican leaders when they get control of the government.” They become “deaf to the voice of the people,” but “able to catch the slightest whisper from big business.”

The train left Denver at 2:30 p.m., with stops and speeches in Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and Cañon City before its arrival in Salida at 9:35 p.m.

Security was tight. Salidans weren’t allowed to park within a block of the depot, the station platform was cordoned off, and railroad employees had to show identification before they could enter the yards.

Truman continued to “give ’em hell” in Salida. He defined a Republican “as a man who has $1,000 or more in his pocket, and I’m trying to look after the man who has to work for a living. You won’t find that in any member of the GOP.”

Among those on the platform at the back of the train with Truman were Wayne Aspinall, making his first run for congress; Marguerite Thompson, a Salidan and on the Democratic National Committee; and Lewis R. Glenn, the county Democratic chairman.

The president received bouquets, and the city presented him a gold 21-jewel pocket watch. “If I am ever late for an appointment again, it won’t be the fault of Salida,” he said.

Bob Rush, a Salida attorney, remembers the visit. “What stands out most isn’t anything Truman said or did, though. I was standing next to two big-time reporters who were traveling with the president. They had their notebooks out, and then closed them as soon as the president started talking. One of them muttered to the other, `It’s the same damn speech he gave in Cañon City.'”

After his 10-minute speech, Truman retired to the presidential railcar, the Ferdinand Magellan. The train stayed in town until 1:55 a.m. on Sept. 21, then headed for Minturn, Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction, and Salt Lake City.

That was the last time that anyone running for president appeared in Central Colorado, although Truman returned in 1952 aboard a special train, campaigning on behalf of Democratic candidates, especially Adlai Stevenson.

That visit is also remembered, especially by Darlene Donahoo, now of Buena Vista.

She was seven years old then, and the mascot for the Salida High School band, which led a parade down F Street to the railroad depot. She wore a majorette’s outfit that her mother had sewn her, and when President Truman saw her in the crowd, he sent two Secret Service agents out to bring her to the platform.

There she had her picture taken with the president. “I remember that Margaret [Truman’s daughter] held me for a while.” She doesn’t remember anything that Truman said — “at that age, you’re not impressed.”

The photo was distributed to newspapers around the country, and “a lot of people sent me copies.”

Crowds didn’t faze her then or later. “My sister and I danced all the time, all through high school. I danced and taught dancing — acrobatic, ballet, tap — for years.” After graduating from high school in Salida, she left the area for 24 years, before taking a job at the Buena Vista Correctional Facility.

And, as far as I know, that’s the last time a President of the United States visited this part of the United States.

Both Truman and Republican nominee Dwight Eisenhower made “whistle-stop tours” in 1952. But Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee, was making “propeller stop tours” so he could hit more big cities in a day. In 1956, Eisenhower was using an airplane extensively, too, and since then, campaigns have moved almost totally away from the rails.

The idea now is to fly from media market to media market, to get on as many television stations as possible. Any crowds that show up to hear a candidate speak are just window dressing.

I sometimes speculate that this modern method of campaigning puts candidates out of touch — that maybe they should have to sit for half an hour with some rural county chairman and talk about patronage and pork, rather than huddle with their consultants and find new ways to spin the news and enhance their images. And that it might be better for the country if the national media were forced to venture into our “flyover country.”

But then I remember a conversation with the late Harold Thonoff, who served as Chaffee County sheriff for many years. He was sheriff when we were sitting next to each other at the local Democrats’ annual “Give ’em Hell, Harry” dinner, and I asked if he remembered the 1948 campaign and President Truman’s visit.

Indeed he did. He was a deputy in 1948, “and the security then, with all those federal guys, was hard enough to deal with. Now, I’d be positively terrified if I heard a president was coming through here. Let ’em stay in the cities — the security they have now would totally disrupt life here.”

So, maybe it’s just as well that presidential candidates don’t visit any more. Life around here has been sufficiently hectic of late without a swarm of Secret Service agents, camera crews, and advance team.

Ed Quillen has never seen a president in the flesh, although he once saw Gerald Ford as an ex-president. His daughter, Abby, shook hands with President Clinton at Red Rocks on Oct. 12.