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A pit stop for presidents

Over several decades near the start of the 20th century, a number of U.S. presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, came to Ashland by rail and gave speeches — but not because Ashland voters were special.

Rather it was because the train had to add an engine to get over the steep Siskiyous grade or to drop an engine after doing it, and that took 20 minutes — perfect for a canned speech, says historian Joe Peterson, who will give a talk, "Arriving by Railroad: Five U.S. Presidents," at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10, at the Ashland Historic Railroad Museum.

In all, five sitting presidents spoke to Ashland residents from the train, including Benjamin Harrison in 1891, Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, William Howard Taft in 1911 (he also came to the city in 1909, but slept through it), Woodrow Wilson in 1919 and Herbert Hoover in 1928.

"Ashland got pretty excited about it," says Peterson. "The railroads made it possible and people could also arrive here from a wide area to see the president.

"The presidents who arrived on trains had to stop here, but they were always on their way to bigger places up and down the coast," says Peterson, author of a popular book on Ashland's history and an educator with the Southern Oregon Educational Service District, where he teaches teachers how to teach history.

Presidents always rode and had their office in the last car of the train, which would stop in a spot that allowed the president to step out onto the car's platform, deliver a rousing address to the crowd and be on his way.

The biggest presidential splash over the decades accompanied Theodore Roosevelt, who was greeted in 1903 by cannon fire, band music and "an outburst of patriotic enthusiasm" by 6,000 people, wrote the Ashland Tidings. Townsfolk had erected, over the tracks, a 34-foot high triumphal arch decorated by Oregon grapes, an Oregon mountain lion and lithographic pictures of Roosevelt.

Unfortunately, the arch toppled over just after the train had passed through it. No one was hurt, but its demise "was deplored by all," wrote the Tidings.

Taft's brief late-night visit in 1911, also was marred when the locomotive attached an additional engine with too much force, sending the president lurching and the train car rolling into the crowd of 2,000 gathered behind the train. No one was injured, but that ended the speech, in which Taft was explaining that he'd lost his voice giving speeches, says Peterson.

Speaking of mishaps, the next two presidents, days after speaking in the Ashland rail yard, were paralyzed or in their graves. President Wilson came through in 1919 while campaigning for his vision — the League of Nations, an early-day United Nations that Congress refused to pass. He was crippled by a stroke days later. Warren G. Harding was too ill to speak as he went through Ashland in 1923 and soon after died in San Francisco.

Except for Wilson, all the train-borne presidents were Republicans — and Ashland was overwhelmingly Republican, with Democrats being thought of as the party of the South, says Peterson.

Others came to Ashland as ex-presidents or while campaigning for president but before entering the White House. One, Rutherford B. Hayes, came to the Ashland Plaza on the stagecoach, before there were trains here. He was campaigning (unsuccessfully) for re-election.

Also, John F. Kennedy came as a presidential candidate in 1960, George H.W. Bush, as a losing presidential candidate in 1980 and Bill Clinton (campaigning for wife Hillary for president) flew into Medford and drove to Ashland in 2008.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.