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Robert McNamara

Newspaper Sunday: First Trip On the Erie Railroad

By May 12, 2013

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When the Erie Railroad opened in 1851, President Millard Fillmore, members of his cabinet, and prominent politicians including the legendary orator Daniel Webster, celebrated by traveling across New York State on an excursion train decorated with flags and bunting.

The new rail connection between the Hudson River and Lake Erie was considered an enormous milestone in transportation. And at a time when the country was still embroiled in controversy over the Compromise of 1850, the impressive new railroad was an opportunity to emphasize good news and American progress.

In mid-May 1851, President Fillmore and other dignitaries traveled from Washington to New York City, and then took a steamboat up the Hudson to the eastern terminal of the railroad at Piermont, New York.

For two days the presidential party rolled along to Buffalo, New York, stopping at towns along the way. They were greeted with brass bands, flag waving, and the firing of celebratory cannons.

Millard Fillmore, who had unexpectedly become president upon the death of Zachary Taylor a year earlier, was a proud native of western New York. So he was delighted to show off how the Empire State had now surpassed its other spectacular achievement, the Erie Canal. Another prominent New Yorker, Senator William Seward, was also on the trip, but the star attraction was Daniel Webster.

At a time when public speaking was a greatly-admired art, Webster was considered the master. Everywhere the train stopped, crowds demanded that he speak to them. A year earlier he had been widely denounced in the North for not blocking the widely-hated Fugitive Slave Act, so he must have been pleased to bask in the adulation.

Between Webster's star power, and the parades, feasts, and barbecues along the way, the rail excursion must have been an astounding event.

The New York Tribune, of course, covered it closely, though its editor, Horace Greeley, was actually in London covering the opening of the Great Exhibition. This week in Newspaper Sunday, we look at coverage of the excursion that opened the Erie Railroad.

Note: The links below lead to excerpts of newspaper articles. On the excerpt pages you can click the "persistent link" to view the entire page of the newspaper.

  • New York Tribune, May 15, 1851: President Fillmore and Daniel Webster boarded a boat at dawn to sail up the Hudson to begin their railroad excursion.
  • New York Tribune, May 16, 1851: A lengthy account of the first day of the excursion across New York State was headlined "Enthusiasm Upon the Route."
  • New York Tribune, May 16, 1851: The new railroad cars were described as "sumptuous," and for the occasion the locomotives and cars were decorated with flags and pennants.
  • New York Tribune, May 16, 1851: Daniel Webster and William Seward both delivered speeches at stops along the way.
  • New York Tribune, May 19, 1851: Daniel Webster was given an exuberant welcome in Buffalo, as 500 people marched behind his carriage. Arriving at his hotel, the crowd demanded a speech, and Webster obliged them from a hotel balcony.
  • New York Tribune, May 19, 1851: A massive barbecue included "ten sheep roasted whole, each decorated with miniature flags," as well as eight large hogs, also roasted whole.

Illustration: President Millard Fillmore/Library of Congress

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