President William Howard Taft dozed for nearly five hours in the wee hours of the July 6th, 1909 morning as The Mayflower, his private rail car, was parked at the esplanade end of track No. 13 at Grand Central Station inn the city of New York.
He had come from Norwich, Conn., where he participated in celebrating the 250th anniversary of the city’s founding, and was on his way to Fort Ticonderoga, in the Adirondacks, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s visit to the region.
While the President slept, his car was switched to the Adirondack and Montreal Express, set to depart New York City at 7:45 am for Albany, and on to “Old Ti” – as many called the Essex County community.
Taft would be joining New York Gov. Charles Evans Hughes, and others, who had participated in festivities that had started in Vermont and New York on July 3rd and would continue through July 10th.
There had been some commotion along the route from Norwich, when a lump of coal fell from a coal car on a passing freight train and shattered a window in a day coach acting as a buffer between the engine on Taft’s train and the President’s rail car.
Some newspapers erroneously reported that a person lurking at the side of the track hurled the lump of coal.
Newspaper descriptions of the incident ranged from a “narrow escape” for Taft, who wasn’t even in the car that was hit, to, “a little excitement,” the latter of which is most accurate.
“A trainman sitting nearby was badly frightened, but suffered no serious injury,” The Broadalbin Herald reported.
Taft’s son, daughter, nephew and niece were already in the vicinity of Ticonderoga, “the little party” staying as guests of the Walter C. Witherbee family of Port Henry on the family’s houseboat “Silonan” on Lake Chamlain.
Robert Taft, son of the president, and Silas Witherbee, son of Walter, a Republican mover and shaker, were classmates at Yale.
Their fathers had attended school together decades earlier.
Walter Witherbee, treasurer of the Tercentenary Commission, and Vermont Gov. G. H. Prouty had dined with the President in Washington on June 16th to finalize arrangement’s for Taft’s participation in the celebration.
Myriad other government officials, including Prouty, would be participating, but Hughes and Taft clearly became stars of the show, next, of course, to Champlain himself.
“It would do his old French soul good to know just what a lot of fuss we are making about him nearly 300 years after he is dead,” quipped newspaper columnist James A. Edgerton. “If Champlain could only know that, he would certainly be overwhelmed by his posthumous splendor.”
It, too, was “a good day for Ethan Allen,” The New York Sun reported.
“If his (Allen’s) spirit could have heard all the eulogies given to him it must have been especially ethereal today in the other world, and his body must have turned in its grave from sheer embarrassment and immodest appreciation of all the grand themes said about him and his deeds.”
On the way to Ticonderoga on July 6th, the President’s train stopped at Poughkeepsie at 9:36 am, observed seemingly by few, other than a local newspaper reporter.
“President Taft looked ruddy with a good, strong coat of tan and was in the best of spirits,” the reporter observed. “He had nothing special to say, and thought the press was keeping the public well informed as to his whereabouts and doings.”
The President’s train was expected to pass through Hudson at 10:40 am.
At Albany, French Ambassador Jean Jules Jusserand and British Ambassador James Bryce joined the President’s train.
Taft stepped out on the back of his rail car to address the crowd.
“I did not come out here with any intention of making a speech, but the compliment you have paid me by coming to the station deserves my coming out and saying good morning,” Taft said. “I thank you and wish you good prosperity.”
Taft arrived at Addison Junction station, in Ticonderoga, around 2:30 pm, where New York National Guard units greeted him with a salute.
Peace the topic of the day
Some came by rail, including the entire New York state Legislature, which traveled together on a special train, on July 6th, 1909 to attend the celebration at Fort Ticonderoga of the 300th anniversary of the visit of Samuel de Champlain to the region.
“It is much for a mere mortal to have a president of the United States and a governor general of Canada do honor to his ashes,” quipped Edgerton, the newspaper columnist, with a touch of sarcasm. “But to have the New York Legislature journey in a body to his shore – surely that is the acme of his fame!”
Others came by steam boat, including the Tenth Regiment National Guard, which came down the lake, bands playing, from Crown Point, where the soldiers had camped the night before.
Still others came by automobile “machines,” including about 200 members of the Automobile Club of America, which routed a two-week excursion around the celebration.
Estimates of the crowd at Fort Ticonderoga that day ranged from 10,000 to 25,000, and numbers in between.
“An ex Army officer, accustomed to viewing large assemblages, placed the number at not less than 20,000,” the hometown Ticonderoga Sentinel reported.
There was general agreement the crowd would have been larger had it not been for the rain, torrential in the morning and scattered through the afternoon.
When President Taft arrived at Fort Ticonderoga around 3 pm, riding from the train depot in a chauffeur-driven automobile, the crowd gasped when the car skidded in the mud coming down a steep incline.
The steady chauffeur quickly regained control, and the moment provided drama for reporters to write about but little actual danger.
Reporters noted the irony of a sign “Private Property – No Shooting Allowed,” – meant to discourage hunters, not military re-enactors – that Taft would have noticed as the vehicle pulled into the fort grounds.
“On the field about Fort Ticonderoga, where bloody battles, and a lot of them, in different wars were fought, President Taft, Ambassador Jusserand and Ambassador Bryce talked peace,” reported The Sun of Fort Covington, in Franklin County, NY “That proved to be the inspiration of the speeches of the day.”
A French and Indian War mock battle, scheduled for the morning, had been postponed to the afternoon due to rain, and then was cut short when showers broke out during it.
“Nature seemed to weep over that part of the show – and why shouldn’t she at the very sight of the American soldiers pretending to be French and Indian soldiers. … It was enough to make any sensitive person weep, let alone nature,” The New York Sun commented.
Mock battles in that era were different from the re-enactments of today, in that those participating wore military uniforms of the time instead of reproductions of 18th century garments.
Westchester National Guard members, who participated in the re-enactment, were upbeat about the experience.
“Company L, as a member of the First Battalion, was of the attacking party, representing the British, which, true to history, drove the French from their trenches,” The Argus of White Plains, NY reported. “It was a very interesting action.”
There was a spontaneous moment of patriotism when U.S. Rep. David Foster of Vermont was finishing his speech and a man in the audience began to sing “America.”
New York Gov. Charles Evans Hughes, the master of ceremonies, and the entire crowd joined in.
“When the verse ‘Our Father’s God to Thee’ was reached, all bowed their heads and there were tears in many eyes,” The New York Sun reported. “After the song was over Gov. Hughes advanced to the front of the stage and took off his hat to the man who had started the song.”
Hughes then introduced Taft.
“Fellow citizens, the supreme moment of the exercises of this day has now arrived. I have the honor of introducing to you a great American man who honors his high office, the President of the United States.”
Taft paid tribute to Champlain, to history, and the contemporary harmony between states and nations.
“Champlain was a man whom all nations can honor. He is not a man with respect to whose history you have to pass over something in silence,” a man who emblemized the courage and curiosity of explorers, he said.
“I do not mind the waves at sea, but I should think that those that did mind them would not believe the story of a Magellan, or Champlain, or Cortez, of those who came over in things that seem no larger than skiffs today,” Taft said. “I think it is well for us to go back through the history of the nations in order that our own heads, a little swelled with modern progress, may be diminished a bit in the proper appreciation of what was done by nations before us under conditions that seem to limit the possibilities of human achievement.”
Taft said the days of war in the Champlain Valley had given way to decades of peace.
“I echo and emphasize the statement of the two Ambassadors and repeat their prayer that never again may the great valley be given a name in history by reason of it being the seat of bloody war.”
After the speech, Taft traveled by boat about 20 miles on Lake Champlain to Port Henry, and then boarded a train for Bluff Point, where he was to stay the night at Hotel Champlain, near Plattsburgh, now the campus of Clinton County Community College.
On July 7th, Taft spoke in the morning at Cliff Haven, a Roman Catholic summer school on Lake Champlain, near Plattsburgh.
He watched a parade, gave a speech at Plattsburgh, and was the luncheon guest at the home of Smith M. Weed, a lawyer and Democrat political leader.
About 400 people attended a banquet the Gov. Hughes hosted in honor of Taft in the evening. On July 8th, Taft spoke at Burlington, Vt., watched another parade, and attended a formal dinner for about 500 people at University of Vermont, before leaving via train for Washington at 10 pm.
Taft, at one point, referred to the Champlain Tercentenary celebration as a “siesta” at the lake shore.
“I congratulate the State of New York in having introduced three or four days of vacation – a siesta, as we call it in Spain,” Taft quipped in a speech at the dinner that Hughes hosted July 7th in Plattsburgh.
Taft’s three days in the Champlain Valley, packed with parades, pageants, speech-making and banquets – and little sleep – had all the makings of a campaign swing, not a restful nap.
Taft arrived back in Washington on July 9th “a pretty tired president after nearly a week of constant traveling and speech making, but he regarded the journey as having been well worthwhile,” the Plattsburgh Daily Press reported.
Taft arrived in Washington with gifts: a limited-edition volume of the Rev. Joseph Cook’s historical address about the history of Ticonderoga, which was a gift from the Ticonderoga Historical Society, and a cane, a gift from Ticonderoga woodworker William Shepard.
Perhaps Taft also brought back one of the “most attractive” souvenir menu cards, “bound in limp leather, stamped in gold,” from the banquet that Hughes hosted.
Fodder for pundits
The governor’s stature was elevated in Taft’s mindset during their three days together.
“A part of the aftermath of the Champlain Tercentenary is the report that President Taft would like to appoint Governor Charles Evans Hughes a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court when the proper time comes,” the Plattsburgh Daily Press reported on July 13th, 1909.
The New York Herald reported that Taft, while he was at Ticonderoga, Plattsburgh and Burlington, spoke with associates of Hughes about appointing the governor to the Supreme Court.
“Speaking several times from the same platform and touring the western shore of the lake together ripened a friendship already cemented,” the Herald reported. “In public and in private, the relations between the President and the Governor were of the most cordial character.”
Certainly, the praise for one another was lavish.
Taft and Hughes already had good relations from when Hughes, a popular national figure, campaigned on behalf of Taft in the 1908 presidential election.
The Herald said it did not appear that Taft discussed a Supreme Court appointment with Hughes directly, and that it was not clear whether Hughes would accept an appointment.
“This is partly due to the fact that no vacancy seems imminent and in part to the possibilities of the political future for Governor Hughes. Many of his friends have not abandoned him as a candidate for the Presidency.”
The New York Sun reported an awkward moment when Foster, the Vermont congressman, spoke at Fort Ticonderoga.
“He paid a tribute to Gov. Hughes and said, as he glanced toward the governor, that Vermont looked to New York in the not distant future for presidential timber. Mr. Hughes smiled sadly and the crowd applauded.”
Taft, in fact, did nominate Hughes for the Supreme Court in 1910, and Hughes accepted.
Hughes resisted efforts in 1912 to draft him to resign from the court to challenge Taft for the Republican presidential nomination.
In 1916 Taft campaigned with Hughes when Hughes narrowly lost the presidential election to incumbent Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Photo of President Taft at the Grandstand at Ticonderoga courtesy Fort Ticonderoga.