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The First Trip on the Erie Railroad

A Rolling Celebration With a President, Several Senators, and Brass Bands

By

Engraved portrait of President Millard Fillmore

President Millard Fillmore

Library of Congress Portrait of Daniel Webster

Senator Daniel Webster

Library of Congress

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.

The New York Tribune of May 15, 1851, described the scene as the steamboat Erie began the trip early on the previous morning:

"The Erie left the pier a few minutes past 6, the band playing "Hail Columbia," while cannons thundered from the shore and the crowds on all the wharves gave tremendous cheers as the boat passed along. All along the river guns were fired, flags displayed, and every token of rejoicing exhibited. All the steamboats on the river displayed their colors and fired salutes."

Heading westward by rail, the presidential party rolled along for two days 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. 

"The story of this stupendous success of American genius has been most brilliantly begun today," said a dispatch in the Tribune about the events on the trip's first day.

The Erie Railroad would be considered a great success, though by the late 1860s it had fallen into financial trouble. The railroad was the prize in a famous and peculiar Wall Street scandal, the Erie Railroad War. It would eventually become the property of the notorious robber baron Jay Gould, and its glorious opening in 1851 would fade into history.

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