#ThrowbackThursday: Hail to the chiefs, Meriden’s 13 presidential visits

#ThrowbackThursday: Hail to the chiefs, Meriden’s 13 presidential visits


Editor’s note: To mark the Record-Journal’s 150th anniversary this year, Throwback Thursday will feature historical events covered by the newspaper. The following list of presidential visits was compiled in 2006 for a special edition on the Meriden bicentennial.

1. George Washington

Washington traveled through Meriden in June 1775 on his way to assume command of the Continental Army in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and again in November 1789 on a presidential tour, according to records contained in the “Guide to the History and Historical Sights of Connecticut” published by the Yale University Press. The route he took through Meriden was Old Colony Road, which is now Colony and North Colony streets. He never really stopped or slept here. On the latter journey he ate breakfast in Berlin and lunch in Wallingford, so we probably can’t claim he ate here. However, Washington did have a hard night of celebration in New Haven before his first trip through Meriden. If it was possible to sleep while riding a horse over poor roads, it is just possible that Washington dozed here as he rode through and never knew he was in Meriden.

2. Andrew Jackson and 3. Martin Van Buren (when vice president)

The visit is chronicled in two local historical accounts. They differ on the date. One places it “about 1829” the year after his first election. The other mentions no date at all but implies that it occurred between 1835 and 1837, which would have been the final years of the fiery figure’s second term in office. The major route between New York and Boston at the time was a toll road, first opened in 1792, which ran directly through Meriden along the line of Broad Street. The center of town was the toll road’s intersection with East Main Street.

“President Andrew Jackson stood up in a barouche at the southeast corner of the building (Central Tavern),” relates Mrs. Frances A. (Faith) Breckenridge, in “Recollections of a New England Town,” published in 1899. “He was bareheaded, held a soft felt hat in his hand, his hair stood up straight, as it is seen in his pictures.

General Walter Booth (a local banker) introduced him as the “hero of New Orleans” which to a young listener sounded thrillingly fine as the crowd cheered in response. General Jackson looked grim and bored. He finally, after bowing low, sat down and the carriage bore him away to the northward.” Welcome E. Benham, in a paper published in 1894 and quoted in “150 Years of Meriden” recounts that Jackson briefly shook hands with prominent citizens on the stone steps of the Center Congregational Church. “After this brief patriotic reception,” Benham continued, “he and his honorable escorts, including Vice President Martin Van Buren, re-entered their carriages and proceeded to Hartford.

4. James K. Polk

His visit was entirely unscheduled and the actual date eludes us. William W. Ellsworth of Hartford was governor at the time and he and the president had several terms together in Congress and were well acquainted. The president’s special train passed the governor’s train at Meriden and the two friends met and clasped each other by the hand from their respective trains.

Polk served as president from 1845 through 1849 and Ellsworth was governor from 1838 through 1842.

5. Abraham Lincoln

It was foggy and rainy in Meriden on the night of Wednesday March 7, 1860. The streets were deep in mud and there was a chill in the air. But the discomforts of the evening were forgotten when Abraham Lincoln, the 51-year-old Illinois lawyer who was making his bid for the presidency, got off the train and paraded by torchlight with several thousand followers to the “town house” (where the present City Hall is located) where he gave an address which echoed the sentiments he had uttered so forcibly at the Cooper Union in New York City and in New Haven just days before. The Democratic newspaper, the short-lived Meriden Banner, said the speech was “tediously dull and uninteresting” and the principles he expounded were “narrow, bigoted, and fallacious.”

Other accounts said that although Democrats had come to heckle him by the end of his speech they were cheering him, so powerful a speech he gave. Sherman Coggeswell, who had been a music teacher at the State Reform School, gave the following impressions of Lincoln’s visit: “When Lincoln entered the town hall the house was crowded. Judge James S. Brooks had been appointed chairman. I well remember what a smile was noticed over the audience when tall Abraham Lincoln was escorted in and introduced by Judge Brooks — a man hardly five feet in height. When Lincoln began is speech, his arms seemed to be in his way, but he soon forgot all about his arms. He had no manuscript and delivered one of the most telling speeches against slavery I ever heard. He had the faculty of using language even a child could understand.”

6. Ulysses S. Grant

General Grant first passed through Meriden on the 8 o’clock train on the evening of June 17, 1869. A large crowd turned out to welcome the Hero President. The band played a lively air of welcome, a space was cleared on the platform of the rear car when the General put in his appearance and many of our citizens had the pleasure of grasping him by the hand. It was observed that the General looked hearty and strong and fully able to go through with the unlimited hand shaking that were before him while journeying back to Washington. On his second visit on July 2, 1870, he was accompanied by Mrs. Grant and their daughter Nellie. The deputation from Meriden consisting of Mayor I. C. Lewis, ex-Mayor Charles Parker, and Dr. E. W. Hatch went to New Haven on the nine o’clock cars to see if General Grant would stop in Meriden. Having been told that he would agree to stop in Meriden, they telegraphed the fact to Meriden. Anxious crowds began to form. Chief Engineer Charles H. Warner got out one of the fire engines and sprinkled Colony Street as far as Fraryville making the road cool and entirely free from dust. At about a quarter to three o’clock the Presidential train was heard in the distance, the crowd congregated in front of the crossing on Main Street and were with difficulty kept back by the police. The President alighted from the cars with the Meriden party and was received with three ringing cheers. The citizens swarmed around their distinguished visitor. The MERIDEN DAILY REPUBLICAN described the Grant family as follows: “Almost every man in the car was dressed better than General Grant. Mrs. Grant is certainly not a beauty. She is plain, decidedly ‘cross-eyed,’ and yet the face is a good one. A kind motherly disposition is indicated — a face that one could trust and one that suffering will not appeal to twice. She was dressed very neatly, yet quite plain. The daughter, a nice plain looking miss of perhaps fifteen years, has very intelligent features, is lady-like and puts on no airs.” The necessary number of hacks to convey the party to Fraryville were arranged, the President rode in one provided by Jedediah Wilcox. All over the city flags had been thrown to the breeze and Colony Street was gay with flags and streamers. All along the route the windows and balconies of the numerous residences were crowded with sightseers and the waving of handkerchiefs and utterances of welcome resounded on every hand. The Reform School boys were drawn up in line and saluted the party as it passed. One of the boys handed the President a bouquet. Arriving in Fraryville a very large assembly greeted the President. He responded by lifting his hat several times to the vast multitude. On re-entering the cars three tremendous cheers were given for General Grant and three more for Mayor Lewis. The train then proceeded direct to Hartford. The President’s stay in Meriden was just twelve minutes from the time of his arrival to the time of his departure.

7. Benjamin Harrison

President Benjamin Harrison and members of his Cabinet and guests arrived by train in Meriden on July 3, 1889 en route to Woodstock, Conn., where the presidential party were to be the guests of H. C. Bowen over July 4. U.S. Senator Orville H. Platt of Meriden was aboard the train which made a brief stop at the railroad station where a crowd gathered to greet the nation’s Chief Executive. The Meriden Daily Journal gave the following account of the event: “President Harrison and entourage arrived by special train from New York. The depot platform was jammed full of people and several stood in the rain on the neighboring sidewalk while the windows in all the buildings and shops near the depot were filled with persons anxious to see the nation’s chief. About 12:40, the train, drawn by Engine No. 82, pulled into the depot. As soon as the train stopped, Senator Platt appeared on the platform of the President’s car. As soon as President Harrison appeared, the crowd began cheering. The volume of sound did not suit the Senator and he called for united cheers and they were given heartily. ... The President, it was expected, would make a short speech, be he said not a word, nor did any of the party except Senator Platt. Immediately after presenting Governor Bulkley, the train pulled out of the depot. As it started, several climbed up on the bumper of the car to shake hands with the president, the first one being W. W. Myatt of the Britannia shop showroom.”

8. Theodore Roosevelt

Never in its history has the city of Meriden entertained such a distinguished visitor with so great a demonstration and with such genuine good feeling and patriotic outbursts of enthusiasm devoid of the least semblance of disorder as it did on Aug. 22, 1902 when Theodore Roosevelt was the guest of the city. Every man, woman and child was on the streets to see him and give him welcome. The demonstrations were elaborate and the city had just cause to be proud of herself.

The president himself was immensely pleased and he several times congratulated U.S. Senator Orville H. Platt on the good appearance of the city and the people. The people, he thought, were of an exceptionally intelligent looking class and he thought Meriden might be a very nice city to live in.

The president was scheduled to visit Hartford that day. At the urging of Senator Platt, Roosevelt consented to make a 45-minute side tour of Meriden and a brief address before traveling on to the state capitol. His train pulled into the depot at 2:59 p.m. whereupon he and his party were greeted by a reception committee consisting of Senator Platt, Mayor George S. Seeley, Postmaster Henry Dryhurst and other officials and whisked away in carriages.

Thousands who waited at the depot cheered and the president returned the sentiment with a frequent doff of his high hat and an expansive grin. Crowds lined the street as Roosevelt’s carriage went up East Main to Broad to Liberty and returned to East Main and the depot. Veterans of the Civil War at the soldier’s monument near the town hall met his view as did a group of children on the Methodist Church lawn and he rose and bowed slightly to both. A little girl ran up to his carriage and handed him a bouquet, receiving his hearty thanks. Throughout the main streets of Meriden flags hung from almost every window and red-white-blue bunting draped hundreds of buildings, stores and factories.

A thousand flags decorated International Silver factories and numerous pictures of the president were hung. At the town hall, a 12 x 12 foot display was suspended over the sidewalk showing a picture of Roosevelt surrounded by stuffed heads of elk and buffalo. Fire bells were rung upon the president’s arrival; guns were fired; every factory in the city rang its bells and a 21-gun salute climaxed the noise. Before leaving Roosevelt mounted the observation platform in the rear of his presidential train and delivered the following address: “Fellow citizens, I am most pleased with your welcome and most glad to see your beautiful little city, and I thank you for your attention.” Then waving his hat, he disappeared inside as the train chugged out of the Meriden station.

9. William Howard Taft

President William Howard Taft passed through Meriden Sept. 19, 1910 in a special car from New Haven. He was accompanied by Col. Isaac Ullman and Charles P. Brookes, Republican national committeemen. From all over the country the President has been receiving congratulatory messages over his encounter with the “Big Stick” yesterday. His action in refusing to acquiesce in certain plans of Col. Roosevelt marks the inception of a new policy on the part of Taft, a determination to maintain his position as leader of the party even if it means a declaration of war against Col. Roosevelt. Taft was a classmate of Dr. E. W. Smith, a Meriden doctor, when they were at Yale and they had remained close, personal friends throughout their life. Because of this friendship, Taft also came to Meriden in 1913 to address a Masonic gathering at the First Congregational church. In 1917, soon after the United States entered the World War, the ex-president came here and made a patriotic address.

10. Woodrow Wilson

President Wilson campaigned at the railroad station in Meriden sometime in 1912. He was the Democratic candidate and was contesting against William Howard Taft, Republican, and Theodore Roosevelt, then the Bull Moose candidate. Wilson won the election.

11. Franklin D. Roosevelt

A five-mile route leading through the heart of the city the morning of Oct. 22, 1936 was packed with men, women and children out to see and cheer President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, as they passed through on his tour of the state, campaigning for his second term. Governor Wilbur L. Cross and Senator Francis T. Maloney were in the open car as the car reached Meriden from Middletown. From Preston Avenue on the east side to Hubbard Park on the west, Meridenites and others from nearby towns lined both sides of the road waving their hands and yelling their greeting to the president. The visit was historical because it was by far the largest crowd ever to greet a national figure in Meriden. The crowd was estimated to be between 20,000 to 30,000. The day was a holiday. Factory management permitted employees to leave their benches to spend a half-an-hour in the center of the city to cheer their president; public and parochial schools dismissed classes.

President Roosevelt paused at Crown Street Square and spoke into microphones provided by The Record to a crowd of approximately 8,000 crammed into the square. After being introduced by Mayor Stephen L. Smith, the president spoke the following: “Mr. Mayor, and friends, I am very glad to come back to Meriden. My good friend, Senator Frank Maloney tells me that I spoke at this very spot when I visited Meriden in 1920 when I was a candidate for vice president of the United States. Since that time, a great deal of water has gone over the dam. We experienced an era of frenzied finances and a few years of false prosperity, followed by a depression.

“That we are succeeding in returning prosperity to the country is indexed by the better purchasing power of our people. I am told Meriden is the greatest silverware center in the world and that orders are coming in pretty well. I thank you for the great welcome you have given me and I hope it won’t be sixteen years before I come back.” As the president finished, a great ovation resounded through the center of the city. Many local people shook his hand before the Secret Service moved in to hold the crowd back. The president got back in his car and rode west past Hubbard Park and on to Waterbury.

12. Harry S. Truman

President Truman spent only a few minutes in Meriden on Oct. 16, 1952 but it was an exciting few minutes for the 20,000 citizens who witnessed the event. Truman, making a political swing on behalf of Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, passed through the city in a whirlwind tour of many of the smaller Connecticut towns including Wallingford, North Haven and Middletown. Truman came from Wallingford and came into Meriden by way of Broad Street, Olive Street and Crown Street. The crowd at Crown Street Square was only a part of those who greeted the popular chief executive. Crowds lined streets leading to the square and he received enthusiastic bursts of applause on Cook Avenue from “knee deep” crowds there and on East Main and Broad streets as he left the city for Middletown.

Though it was a fast visit, Truman took ten minutes to deliver a crowd-pleasing speech to those assembled in the square. In his best “give ’em hell” style, he flayed the Republicans in and out of office for their actions in Congress and their tactics during the campaign. He pleaded with Meridenites to “vote their consciences on behalf of the welfare of the country.” At the conclusion of his remarks, he stood on the podium smiling broadly and chatting to those about him as the crowd roared and applauded for several minutes. Throughout the entire affair, daughter Margaret was scrutinized closely by Meriden women, all of whom later seemed to agree she was daintier than they had imagined and certainly prettier than her pictures. Maureen DePaolo, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph DePaolo, presented Margaret with an orchid corsage, which was warmly and smilingly received.

13. Jimmy Carter

Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter spent 90 minutes in Meriden on April 27, 1976. During three speaking stops, he discussed foreign policy and the other Democratic presidential candidates and accurately predic ted he would win in the Pennsylvania primary. He spoke at City Hall to a crowd of about 150, and at the Latin American Society, where he addressed the audience in Spanish, filtered through a southern accent.


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