Woodrow Wilson’s Trek to the White House

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by Phil James

Woodrow Wilson and former President Taft
Woodrow Wilson and former President Taft

Since the 1850s, throughout central Virginia the distant sound of locomotive power has punctuated the day and haunted the night. Who hasn’t heard that distant rumble or watched a passing train without wondering who was onboard and where they were bound.

Many stood a trackside vigil along the route of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s funeral train as it traveled its 1,400-mile route from Washington, D.C., to Abilene, Kansas. Thousands were assembled in Charlottesville on March 31, 1969, when the train paused briefly around 10 p.m. for a crew change. As it proceeded through western Albemarle County, others waited somberly in the cold night air near rail crossings and in villages to pay their final respects to the nation’s 34th President.

A half-century earlier, a president-elect’s visit to this area had also garnered considerable local attention.

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in the Presbyterian manse in Staunton, Virginia, on December 28, 1856. At that same time, Claudius Crozet’s tunnel workers were busy enlarging the holed-through opening which connected the east and west headings of the main Blue Ridge Tunnel beneath Rockfish Gap. The infant-Wilson’s destiny would include two terms of service to his country as its 28th President-the eighth Virginia-born statesman to serve that office.

The Wilson family moved from Staunton shortly before young Woodrow’s first birthday and subsequently lived in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. A determined student, Woodrow Wilson graduated from Princeton and Johns Hopkins Universities. Between his times at those halls of study, he was enrolled at the University of Virginia for the 1879-1880 terms.

At U.Va., Wilson resided at 31 West Range while he studied law and participated whole-heartedly in the social life of the University community. Health issues precipitated his withdrawal from the University during his second year, but he would long remember both the fraternal friendships formed in Charlottesville as well as a romantic interest at Staunton’s Augusta Female Seminary (later, Mary Baldwin College). That unrequited courtship surely necessitated many rail trips through western Albemarle County’s beautiful countryside.

Wilson’s brief legal career gave way to his return to academia where he earned a Ph.D. (the only U.S. president to attain that distinction) in history and political science. By 1890 he had returned to his Princeton alma mater as a professor, and in 1902 became its president.

Two things transpired in 1910 that would affect Woodrow Wilson’s path for the rest of his days. Leaving academia, he successfully campaigned for the governorship of New Jersey. Meanwhile, back in Staunton, a grassroots movement was well under way to promote “Wilson for President.”

During an unannounced visit to Charlottesville in November 1911, Governor Wilson accepted an invitation from Staunton’s Woodrow Wilson Club to revisit his city of birth and speak to political supporters. The high level of excitement and energy in Staunton that day was maintained until Wilson’s Democratic presidential nomination in July 1912.

The presidential election of 1912 quickly became a heated, three-way tussle between incumbent President William H. Taft, former two-term President Theodore Roosevelt, and New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson. During the final weeks of campaigning, as the hotly contested race drew down to the wire, Roosevelt miraculously survived a gunshot to his chest while stumping in Wisconsin. Then, less than a week before the general election, popular incumbent Vice President James “Sunny Jim” Sherman died in office, leaving Taft scrambling to refill his ticket at the last possible minute.

Soon after announcement of Wilson’s election victory on November 4, 1912, representatives of Staunton’s Woodrow Wilson Club traveled to the president-elect’s Princeton, New Jersey, home. They carried with them a personal invitation for Wilson to visit Staunton once more, so that the city might honor him at his birthplace on his 56th birthday. When news spread of his acceptance, towns along his planned route through central Virginia began to devise ways they might salute him as well.

When C&O train No. 5 entered Charlottesville at 7 p.m. on December 27, town officials and thousands of local citizens were poised to welcome the president-elect. Electric lights were turned off in the vicinity of the train station with the exception of an electric sign proclaiming “Welcome Wilson.” As No. 5 approached the station platform, red torches were lit and held high, the Monticello Guard stood at attention, and the Albemarle Band began to play. A loud cheer erupted from the assembled throng when President-elect and Mrs. Wilson waved from their private car, but as the crowd persisted, Wilson relented and stepped out onto the rear platform and shook hundreds of their outstretched hands.
As the train proceeded west from Charlottesville, it was greeted by a bonfire in Crozet set ablaze by the precinct’s Democratic Party. That same night the president-elect slept in the same Staunton bedroom in which he had been born 56 years prior.

On December 28, 1912, excursion trains carried many well-wishers to Staunton, swelling that town’s enthusiastic celebration to a reported 25,000 revelers. Many arrived from central Virginia via the “special train,” at a cost of $1.20 round-trip. Others back home simply waited to see the Wilsons pass by on their return trip after the celebration.

By the first of March, 1913, excitement in the region had reached a fevered pitch in anticipation of Wilson’s March 4th inauguration. Local rail freight service was suspended for the first week of March to better accommodate the many special trains converging on the nation’s capital city. One of the many dignitaries who passed through the area was Governor Morehead from Nebraska and his party and staff of 75. Their local itinerary included visits to Wilson’s birthplace, U.Va. and Monticello.

Three “fast through trains” ran daily between Charlottesville and Washington, D.C. It was reported that on the 40 tracks converging at Washington’s Union Station, a train of visitors was unloaded every three minutes. Two thousand members of the Virginia State Militia marched in the grand inaugural parade as did 300 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute. U.Va. and Princeton alumni were seated together in the reviewing stand.

The horizon of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency would be filled with crises. A World War would leave 8.3 million military dead on the battlefields. Wilson’s second administration would also reel under the strain of a worldwide influenza pandemic that took the lives of three to four times that number. Yet, Wilson would also be remembered as the one who signed the tender piece of legislation proclaiming a national Mother’s Day.

The life of Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) spanned an era that evolved from travel by horseback to transcontinental rail service to affordable private automobiles. Through it all he never forgot his Virginia roots, nor did his Virginia friends and neighbors ever forget him.