When campaign trails were steel rails

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.

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.

This practice was the subject of much joking among the big-city reporters, who were used to more sophisticated communication methods. "Get out your best smoke signals," I heard one of them say to the clerk as he dropped off his story.

There was a communications car that, I was told, contained powerful radio equipment. It was in constant contact with the White House for official government business.

At the first town where there was a communication connection, I found the wires running down the telegraph pole and quickly connected them to the wires dangling from the train. To my surprise, one of the White House staff then reached into his luggage and brought out a Vibroplex "bug" (a semiautomatic telegraph key widely used by telegraphers).

Plugging it in to the connection, he tapped out, "WH WH WH." Immediately the response came: "I WH." He then proceeded to conduct his business.

The telephone companies also had been asked to have connections available on the train. And at one stop, White House staff immediately placed calls to party functionaries in towns ahead. They were on the phone constantly, discussing arrangements in detail.

The train would travel on to California, and in large cities it would be parked. Speeches would be made in a hotel or convention center.

Dinners were beautiful: gleaming white linen, sparkling silverware, and colorful flowers on every table.

On our trip from St. Paul to Spokane, the train stopped at every town of any size. At each one, President Truman, standing on the rear platform with his wife and daughter at his side, would praise Stevenson and Alabama Sen. John Sparkman (Stevenson's vice-presidential choice), and lambaste Eisenhower.

Referring to the popular Republican slogan "I Like Ike," Truman would say: "I like Ike, too. I like him in the Army. I can think of nothing worse than having an uninformed military man in the White House."

Local politicians climbed up on the platform at every stop to shake hands with the president and be photographed with him. Bess and Margaret were always there, always graceful and unobtrusive.

Truman's remarks in each town would be mimeographed and distributed to the reporters. Actually, the remarks were the same each time, except for the insertion of a paragraph or two concerning a local situation - farm subsidies, or a federal project under way or proposed. At Glasgow, Mont., he spoke about the Fort Peck dam. At Columbia Falls, he spoke of Hungry Horse dam. At Libby, he spoke of the proposed Libby dam.

A photographer said to me, "I'm bored stiff. I take the same picture of Truman speaking in every town. I wish something would happen." I, on the other hand, didn't want anything to happen - not on our railroad.

Happily for me, and perhaps not so happily for the photographer, the trip ended without incident. We turned POTUS over to the next carrier.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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