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When campaign trails were steel rails

By Chester Wesman / August 24, 2000

Presidential campaigns didn't used to have TV commercials and televised debates. There were no talk-show appearances, no jet airplanes, no Web sites on the Internet. To get out into the country and talk to the people, politicians used the railroad.

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Campaign trains stopped at small towns all along the way. Speeches were made from the tiny rear platform on the last car. The audience stood on and about the tracks and listened, faces upturned like a patch of sunflowers.

As the communication officer for the Great Northern Railway, I rode the campaign train of President Harry S Truman in 1952, when he stumped the country on behalf of Adlai Stevenson, the Democrats' nominee.

Great Northern handled the train from St. Paul, across Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, and Idaho, to Spokane, Wash.

The first I knew about the train was when we got a telegram telling us that POTUS would travel over our tracks between those points.

POTUS was the code word for a presidential train. The message instructed me to call the White House to get information about communication connections that were needed in specified towns.

At each of these points, our lineman would make connections to the proper overhead wire on the railroad's telegraph pole. Then he'd run wires down the pole to be available for connecting to the train.

The White House had already made arrangements with the Western Union telegraph company so that the connections from the train to wires on our pole line would go directly into the White House telegraph desk. Surely, I thought, the connection on this train would be highly sophisticated. I hoped I'd have a plug to fit.

I needn't have worried. The connection was nothing more than two wires dangling at the end of one of the cars. All we had to do was twist them together with the wires from the telegraph pole and we'd be in business.

The train consisted of about a dozen cars, and it had priority over everything else. To be extra cautious, any other train on the line would pull into a siding far ahead of the president's train, and stay there until POTUS (President of the United States) had gone by.

There were Pullman sleeper accommodations for Truman, his wife, Bess, and their daughter, Margaret. Other sleepers housed Secret Service men, members of the president's staff, and a large contingent of reporters and photographers representing every major publication. (Joseph C. Harsch was aboard for The Christian Science Monitor.) The sleeping cars and the dining car were Baltimore & Ohio stock, painted bright blue and gold.

A maroon Western Union car, named the Carol S. Linkens, contained rows of tables where reporters could write their stories. When a reporter finished his story, he would take it to the Western Union desk at one end of the car. A clerk would count the words and figure the charges. Then the clerk would tie all the telegrams in a bundle and throw them off at the next designated crossroad in this sparsely populated part of the country.

At each of these crossroads, a man would be waiting with a car to take the stories to the nearest telegraph office for transmission to editors at various newspapers.