John F. Kennedy campaigns in 1960 for the presidency in York. (See list of known presidential visits below.) Background post: Ted Kennedy’s visit to York comes almost 50 years after JFK’s and Hillary Clinton’s rally site in York, Pa., a little odd.
There is a telling story about President James Buchanan, who regularly passed through York County on his way to his home, Wheatland, in Lancaster County.
His practice was to leave his conveyance and walk across the mile-long covered bridge connecting York County and Lancaster. One trip in 1859, he slipped, fell, got up and, unfazed, continued his walk.
Some would say there was a certain poetic justice in his fall. His inability as president, and as a particularly weak president to boot, to hold the union together ultimately resulted in the Civil War and the rebel army’s visit to York County in late June 1863. The very bridge itself slipped into the Susquehanna River after Union troops torched it to stop the Confederates from crossing.
After his fall, Buchanan returned through York “in excellent health and fine spirits,” a newspaper reported. Too bad, many Americans then believed, that he didn’t depart from office with his country in similar circumstances.
Buchanan’s links to York made his excursions through the region public, even down to coverage of his slips. But it’s impossible to pin down a complete list of prospective, actual or former presidents who visited York and Adams counties.
Here is a sampling of visits to York and Adams counties from those who occupied the White House:
George Washington: The first president made an early-morning stop in July 1791 in McAlister’s Town, now Hanover, which he described as “a very pretty village with a number of good brick houses and Mechanics in it .¤.¤. .” He proceeded to York, where the president worshipped at the German Reformed Church on West Market Street the following day. “.¤.¤. I went to hear morning Service performed in the Dutch reformed Church, which, being in that language, not a word of which I understood, I was in no danger of becoming a proselyte to its religion by the eloquence of the Preacher.” Passing through York County in 1794 after addressing the Whiskey Rebellion, the president experienced an uneasy Susquehanna River crossing: “.¤.¤. I rode yesterday afternoon thro’ the rain from York Town to this place, and got twice in the height of it hung (and delayed by that means) on the rocks in the middle of the Susque-hanna. .¤.¤.” Washington reportedly visited York County two other times before the American Revolution, but never during the war.
John Adams: The president sharply criticized York during his brief stay as a member of the Continental Congress in 1777-78. Turning the other cheek in 1800, York residents gave the then-president of the United States a warm reception in an overnight stop. In addressing residents, Adams noticed growth in businesses, residences and cultivated farmland since his last visit: “In return for your kind wishes, I pray for the confirmation and extensions to you and your posterity of every blessing you enjoy.”
Andrew Jackson: In 1819, before his presidential years, the noted general made a hurried visit to York before landing in Lancaster. But, while in York, he complained about an overcharge sustained on his way to that borough. Jackson had lost his temper when informed he owed $50 to Cornelius Garrettson for conveying him from the Shrewsbury area to York in a sled. Jackson countered with $30, which Garrettson accepted. Still, Jackson received a warm reception from York residents seeking a glimpse of the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. “The general we are told is a man of remarkably plain and easy manners, and that those who went to see him were much pleased with his frank and open manner in which they were received by him,” The York Gazette reported.
Martin Van Buren: This unpopular president, blamed for the Panic of 1837, spent a quiet night in the White Hall Hotel, now the National House, in 1839. He declined a public reception to avoid ostentation at a time when the country was suffering financial hardship.
William Henry Harrison: Gen. Harrison, candidate for the presidency, visited York in 1836 and received a welcome befitting the “Hero of Tippecanoe.” In 1841, a train carrying Harrison’s body — President Harrison’s body — stopped in York, where a solemn audience honored his memory. George W. Prowell’s “History of York County,” begins an account of that ceremony: “The sacred relics of a great and good man were brought from Washington to Baltimore on Saturday last, and remained in the latter city until Monday morning. .¤.¤. A committee on the part of the (York) volunteers and citizens started early on Monday morning to meet the incoming train from Baltimore and attend it to town.” One possible reason for Harrison’s popularity in York: His father, Benjamin, had served in the Continental Congress, meeting in York in 1777-78.
Zachary Taylor: A bipartisan group played host to President Zachary Taylor’s visit to York County in August 1849. The famous general and Whig president, on a tour of western Pennsylvania and other eastern states, arrived via railroad and stayed at the Washington House. In its report of the visit, the York Gazette stressed that both Democrats and Whigs escorted him to the hotel and prepared to join him for a “sumptuous” dinner. But the president chose to give a speech from the front portico of the hotel. And he chose to give a political speech vowing to carry out the wishes of the Whig party, according to the Democratic Gazette. This troubled the Gazette and cast a pall over the event — and the newspaper’s coverage. The president’s friends would even be troubled when they hear of his misjudgment, the newspaper reported. “They will not believe it possible that the General .¤.¤. could so far lose all sense of propriety,” the newspaper stated.
James Buchanan: James Buchanan’s Wheatland Home in Lancaster County meant that he was a frequent rail passenger through York County. His Democratic politics lined up with York County’s — he formerly represented the county in the U.S. Congress — and he would often stop to call on his allies. He made such a visit the day after his presidential term ended March 4, 1861. According to a newspaper article written by historian George Prowell, a delegation of local political allies met him in Glen Rock and accompanied him to York. His train stopped at Market and Water streets, where he proceeded to the home of Henry Welsh for a dinner attended by 50 guests. That day marked the beginning of seven relatively quiet years at Wheatland. Dignitaries often visited, including delegations from York County. Prowell wrote about his visit with Buchanan in March 1868. “His conversation was about a promise of an abundant crop of wheat, rye, oats and corn for that season,” Prowell wrote. At that time, Buchanan seemed in good health and humor. A month later, Buchanan took sick, and two month later, he died.
Abraham Lincoln: On his way to Gettysburg for his famous address in 1863, Lincoln’s train paused in Hanover after he had changed trains at Hanover Junction. “Father Abraham,” someone called out, “your children want to hear you.” The president emerged from his car. “Well, you have seen me,” Lincoln said, “and according to general experience, you have seen less than you expected to see.” Two years earlier, Lincoln’s train, without the president-elect aboard, paused in York. Lincoln had been rerouted because of a suspected assassination plot. His absence disappointed a large York crowd. In 1865, Lincoln’s body was aboard his touring funeral train when it stopped in York. Within earshot of a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, an elderly black man proclaimed, “He was crucified for us.”
Andrew Johnson: Abraham Lincoln’s successor made York part of his “Swing Around The World” tour, designed to promote his policies. His reception in York in September 1866 was akin to that received elsewhere. “There was not very much enthusiasm when the train stopped, and the presidential party began to emerge from private coaches which formed the train,” The Gazette and Daily reported years later. But then the crowd spotted Civil War heroes Gen. U.S. Grant and Admiral David Farragut and excitement reigned. “Cheer upon cheer rent the air when these boys and men heard that two of the greatest heroes of American history were with the party,” the newspaper reported. Johnson gave a speech from the Washington House’s second-floor balcony, appearing with the popular military men. He explained his side of his ongoing battle with Congress, a vitriolic fight which eventually served to undermine his presidency.
U.S. Grant: A defective locomotive caused this newly elected president to stop in Hanover on the way to Gettysburg in 1868. In remarks to a gathering, he praised the performance of Union commanders in the Battle of Gettysburg. The visit marked the former commander of Union forces’ first visit to Gettysburg. Grant succeeded Andrew Johnson to the presidency and was part of Johnson’s presidential entourage that visited York in 1866.
James A. Garfield: A large crowd observed the funeral train bearing the body of this assassinated president pass through York on Sept. 23, 1881. “Lest the gesture of standing in silence with bared heads should seem too meagre in its expression of bereavement such as this, billows of flowers had been strewn between the tracks and floral wreaths were brought to be tossed aboard the coaches,” a newspaper reported. Before his presidency, Garfield visited his friend, former Buchanan cabinet member Jeremiah S. Black, in York. The pair climbed Webb’s Hill to observe the scenery around York. A clerk accompanying the pair recorded the following conversation, according to an undated newspaper article: “I am just now thinking that York was the capital of the United States when congress was on wheels,” Garfield observed. “Well,” Black replied, “our other companions and I have been looking over the journals of congress recently, and we have discovered that congress didn’t come to York on wheels, but members on horseback.”
Theodore Roosevelt: Headlines from The York Gazette tell part of the story of his 1906 visit in which he touted York’s growing prosperity in a speech at the York Fairgrounds: “Remarkable Ovation To President Roosevelt on His Visit to York Fair.” “Disagreeable Weather Did Not Dampen Enthusiasm Of Thousand of Citizens.” “Politics Entirely Ignored.” “Driven Through Main Thoroughfare of City Amid The Shouts and Hurrahs of His Friends Who Were All The People.” “Spoke to 25,000 Persons At The Fair Grounds.” The president’s 1906 visit also made county news when The York Dispatch published a rare front-page photo. This marked one of the last times — if not the last time — the Dispatch would depart from a gray, eight-column front page without photos for the next 82 years. The image of another U.S. president, George Bush, prompted a front-page photo in the 1988 election season. Roosevelt had arrived in York after dedicating the new Capitol building in Harrisburg.
William Howard Taft: William Howard Taft outlined his previous contacts with York County during a December 1915 visit as guest of the York Manufacturers Association at the York County Club. He had passed through by train several times, and in fact, spoke to an audience for a few minutes from the back of a train on one occasion. “Next, he expressed great satisfaction in being able to actually be in this great hive of industry as York has long been considered,” The York Gazette reported. Taft, who lost his bid for re-election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson three years earlier, spoke on the powers of the presidency in such a riveting manner that “not a man stirred from his seat.”
Warren G. Harding: Presidential candidate Warren G. Harding gave a brief speech during a stop at York’s railroad station in September 1920. He opened his speech by introducing his “boss” — his wife, Florence — to the cheering crowd of 1,000. He had noticed York’s burgeoning post-World War I factories. “In an industrial city such as yours,” a newspaper quoted the future president, “you who work for wage want to know the permanence of your employment and of the compensation which it brings to you. You can’t have the present high level of wages unless you give high efficiency in return. Do that, it is your duty to your country.”
Herbert Hoover: Republican presidential candidate Herbert Hoover’s train made a stop in York in July 1928. The president handed out a lot of smiles and bows but no speech during his brief visit attended by 2,000 people at the Duke Street railroad station, according to a newspaper report. At one point, he seemed worried about the safety of the crowd when the train backed up and moved forward several times. “Mr. Hoover seemed to be keeping his eyes all around the rear of the car, fearing that someone might get too close and be injured,” the newspaper reported. The crowd called upon Hoover to shake hands with “the colonel,” meaning John Ott, a well-known 81-year-old Civil War veteran. The candidate immediately complied. As the train pulled away, Hoover shook hands with a small child, Ira M. Resher Jr., sitting on his father’s shoulders.
Franklin D. Roosevelt: President Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled through York County by train at least two times in the 1930s. He waved from his private car but did not appear on the platform as he headed through Hanover to give his own Gettysburg Address at the Adams County battlefield on May 30, 1934. Crowds also lined the tracks in Menges Mills and Spring Grove to catch a glimpse of the president. But on his way back through York, he stood on his train car’s platform, waving to a crowd estimated at 10,000 to 15,000 people. The train did not stop. After the special train passed through, kids picked up coins from the rails, flattened by its wheels. Four years later, a smaller crowd observed the president’s train as it traveled through York.
Harry S. Truman: Senator Truman came to York in early 1944, criticizing defense industry “chiselers” who were using the war to their advantage. He commended the county for its support of the war. “You are accepting minor privations, willingly, smilingly and bravely,” he said. He sidestepped a question about his interest in the vice presidency by stating at a York County Democratic banquet, “A statesman is only a dead politician, and I want to live a long time yet.” Truman was alive and serving as U.S. president in June 1948. His stop was the first appearance by a president in York since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s train passed through in 1934 and 1938. Truman’s train stopped at the West Market Street crossing, and he spoke from its platform to a crowd estimated at 5,000. “Only about a third of you turned out to vote for this Congress,” Truman, candidate for election to the chief executive’s seat he had assumed upon Roosevelt’s death, said. “And you got exactly what you deserved.” Nancy Smith, 11, mounted the train’s steps to give Truman red roses on behalf of the Girl Scouts of York, and Truman kept her close by after that so she could appear in photos. He had previously received an armful of white roses, symbolic of York. The Gazette and Daily, supporter of third-party challenger Henry Wallace in that presidential election year, was a bit dismissive of Truman in its coverage, typical of the personal journalism of owner J.W. Gitt. The newspaper noted that Truman spoke in generalities. He continued his policy of skipping issues of civil rights, Palestine and Henry Wallace for president, the newspaper reported. It provided the reserved sub-headline: “Crowd seems friendly, if not enthusiastic.”
John F. Kennedy: As a presidential candidate in 1960, Kennedy spoke before a crowd of 4,500 people at the York Fair. He watched a harness race with former state Gov. George M. Leader and was asked at the Salvation Army tent to buy a $1 brick to help build a new citadel in York. The multimillionaire Kennedy searched his wallet for a $10 bill. But he found it empty, a common occurrence, his aides told York newsman Harry McLaughlin. Miraculously and immediately, $10 immediately appeared from his staff to pay for the brick. Kennedy started his York County visit with lunch at the Lincoln Woods Inn, across from the then-York County Shopping Center in Springettsbury Township. As he awaited transportation to the fair, he signed autographs — mostly requested by women — and answered reporters’ questions, McLaughlin wrote. Chauffeur and state Trooper Leslie Jackson drove Kennedy to the fairgrounds, as indeed he did throughout Pennsylvania. “My wife and I attended the Kennedy inaugural ball and we were standing behind the security lines when President Kennedy spotted me and broke through the lines to shake hands,” Jackson later told McLaughlin.
Lyndon B. Johnson: The president and his wife, Lady Bird, keynoted the Dallastown Centennial on Sept. 4, 1966. Congressman N. Neiman Craley Jr. served as grand marshal of a parade to celebrate the borough’s 100th anniversary, where President Johnson spoke. The president gave a little history lesson: “As Congressman Craley said to you, as a native of Texas I have come here today to acknowledge a debt. Your town was named in honor of a great citizen of Pennsylvania — President Polk’s Vice President, George Dallas. George Dallas wanted Texas in the Union. He made it an issue in the campaign of 1844, and that helped President Polk get elected. Incidentally, it also helped a later President who happened to come from Texas.” And a comment about small-town life: “In the little town in Texas where I grew up, we used to say that in small towns the girls are fonder, and the dinner pails are fuller.”
Richard M. Nixon: In 1946, when Nixon was first elected to the U.S. House, Nixon’s parents moved to a Menges Mills farm. Their famous son visited them several times. Nixon visited Staub’s Drug Store in Hanover in 1968. The owner later wrote for — and received — Nixon’s autograph. Jake Thomas was proud of the signature. “Then after Watergate, Jake never mentioned it much,” Abigail, his wife, said. Nixon also visited his namesake park near Jacobus in 1988. He donated $5,000 to the park after his visit and regularly contributed funds until his death in 1994.
Gerald Ford: In September 1979, Ford, three years past his defeat at the hands of Jimmy Carter, was traveling the country on a speaking tour — unofficially testing the waters for another presidential run. York College was one of his stops. That campaign never materialized.
Jimmy Carter: Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter visited Lewisberry in northern York County in 1974. York photographer Bill Schintz recalls Carter attended a rally at a barn. Aboard a bus and running late for his next stop, Carter made the driver stop, and he got out to talk with a boy in a wheelchair. He told the boy he had a nephew like him and asked to say a prayer with the youngster. “He knelt down and prayed,” Schintz recalled. “No one else was there.” Schintz said he happened to notice that otherwise private interaction. No record exists of Carter visiting York County in either the 1976 or 1980 election. Joan Mondale stumped for Carter and her husband, vice-presidential candidate Walter Mondale, in 1976, and First Lady Rosalynn Carter campaigned for her husband in 1980.
Ronald Reagan: The president toured Harley-Davidson’s plant in Springettsbury Township in 1987. Matt Gladfelter, then a student journalist at Central High School, covered the event. “When he spoke, everybody was quiet,” Gladfelter recalled. “He just had a way of being able to connect with people and draw them to whatever he had to say.” Reagan did not get on a motorcycle.
George H.W. Bush: In the early 1990s, the president was the main attraction at a political fundraiser in Monaghan Township in northern York County. His efforts brought $800,000 to U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter’s campaign. The president endorsed Specter, commenting: “This is not a normal kind of endorsement. I really mean it.” On the campaign trail in 1988, Bush visited York, and his wife, Barbara, split off to visit Crispus Attucks Community Center’s Day Care Center. The Republican candidate gave a 20-minute speech before 4,500 assembled at the Colonial Courthouse.
Bill Clinton: York became the Democratic nominee’s first campaign stop in 1992. An estimated crowd of 3,000 awaited him at 10:15 p.m. In his memoirs, Clinton placed the rally at a much later time. “On the first day,” Clinton wrote, “we worked our way through eastern and central Pennsylvania, reaching our last stop, York, at 2 a.m.” He continued: “Thousands of people had waited up for us. Al (Gore) gave his best 2 a.m. version of the stump speech. I did the same, and then we shook supporters’ hands for the better part of an hour before the four of us collapsed for a few hours sleep.” During his speech, Clinton showed he had done his homework on local history. “This community was once the capital of this great country,” he said. “In this community reside the values and the spirit we must return to the present capital.” In 1999, President Clinton visited Harley-Davidson, causing political analyst Terry Madonna to contrast his visit with Reagan’s. In 1987, Ronald Reagan, a Republican free trader, spoke on how well Harley resurged under protective tariffs. In 1999, Clinton, a Democrat, paid tribute to the company’s success in free trade. In that visit, President Clinton declined to hop aboard a bike.
George W. Bush: President Bush, seeking re-election to a second term, visited the York Expo Center in 2004. The crowd responded excitedly to his comments on military matters. When Bush said, “Al-Qaida is wounded, but not broken,” members of the audience yelled back, “Go get ’em!” The York Daily Record reported that he concluded with combined prediction and call to arms. “We will make America safer, stronger and better,” Bush said. “This is the work that history has set before us. We welcome it. And we know that for our blessed country, the best days lie ahead.” In a visit to Harley-Davidson in 2006, President Bush got on board a hawg, unlike his predecessors Reagan and Clinton. President Bush sought — and gained — permission from Joel Toner to start and climb aboard a Harley. Bush observed that Toner had a cool job. Toner said: “I agreed and said, ‘Yeah, I think I got one of the greatest jobs in the world.’ ”
Barack Obama: The then-Democratic presidential candidate toured West Manchester Township’s Voith Siemens Hydro Power Generation plant in September 2008. He also took questions from a group of 50 gathered in the plant parking lot. Obama’s wife, Michelle, spoke to a capacity-filled Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center in April. Many other candidates or their families visited York County during the 2008 election season. Chelsea Clinton was the first dignitary to stump way back in early April when her mother, Hillary Clinton, was a candidate for the Democratic nomination. Hillary Clinton made a stop in York and spoke to a crowd of about 800 at Market and Beaver streets. About 4,000 people turned out at the York Expo Center’s Toyota Arena to hear John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, speak. His vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, was the last, appearing in late October. Joe Biden was the only candidate among the four presidential and vice presidential entries not to show.
As for Thomas Jefferson: An often-asked question around York County is whether Thomas Jefferson was one of the 64 delegates to serve during in Continental Congress during its visit here in 1777-78. He was home in Virginia dealing with legislative matters in his home state and did not visit York during that period. In fact, he may never have visited York County.
Credits: York Gazette; The Gazette and Daily; York Dispatch; York Daily Record; Georg Sheets’ “To the Setting of the Sun”; James McClure’s “Never to be Forgotten,” “Nine Months in York Town,” “East of Gettysburg”; George Prowell’s “History of York County”; York County Heritage Trust files.