28 Years Ago Tonight, Halloween, Presidential Whistle-Stop Campaign In Stevens Point

It was a Saturday, Halloween, and the last weekend of a presidential campaign. But not 2020, but rather 1992.

October 31, 1992, was a cold and blustery day across Wisconsin.  Light snow flurries swirled through the air as many thousands stood for hours at the old train depot in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.   The presidential campaign that year was winding down, and even though President Bush was campaigning with David McCullough’s latest book Truman in his hand while reminding voters that he too could win the election as Harry did in 1948, the polls were all indicating the opposite.  In later news accounts and books, all would discover that it was that frigid day in Wisconsin when President Bush was told of his fate by his internal pollsters. In spite of that, there were still campaign stops to be made, as Bush was traveling Wisconsin by train while working over-time at trying to making his Truman moment come true. 

A Republican friend of mine at the Capitol had secured tickets for my mom and dad along with most of my immediate family, including nieces and nephews who wished to attend what turned out to be the most incredible campaign rally I have ever witnessed.  We had arrived very early which allowed us to stand in the very front near the podium allowing the young ones in my family to have a moment they will never forget.  I have been lucky to be up front at many of these election moments over the years, but nothing compares to the sights and sounds of President H. W. Bush arriving on the train to greet the people.  Being a lover of history this was a moment that made time seem to move backward as the loud engine and sharp whistle brought a President to that little depot.  I had at times wondered if my folks thought my involvement in politics was worth the time and energy which I had put into it.  But that day as I watched their  faces I had my answer.  This had impressed them!  

At about 5:00 P.M. off in the distance, the lonesome sound of the train was heard and the crowd exploded with cheers.  As the big locomotive brought the long line of train cars into the depot the President and his family were waving and ready to embrace the folks who were friendly in spite of the national mood.  The crowd was highly partisan, as it should be, for such an occasion.  I was mesmerized by the historical and grand moment that this old-fashioned campaign rally had generated.  Nothing will ever surpass that event.

While my nephew Troy and I had actually shaken hands with both President Bush and Barbara in Waukesha that summer at another rally at the rope line up front (where Bush was also talking of winning like Truman) we were not so lucky in Plover.  But it did not matter as we all walked away after that wonderful afternoon to find a small restaurant to eat and un-thaw at for a while.  We had all witnessed something that is left to the history books, and nostalgic memories of those who lived the 1948 campaign and saw trains used in national campaigns.

Train History Not To Be Forgotten

With a lot going on this past week there were some news items which were passed by on this blog.  Looking at that list this afternoon I noticed one that simply needs to be posted about before anything else takes me away from the computer.  My love of history and trains makes this a priority.

The Union Pacific No. 119, arrives for the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad completion at the Golden Spike National Historical Park Friday, May 10, 2019, in Promontory, Utah. People from all over the country are gathering at a remote spot in Utah to celebrate Friday’s 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Salutes and cannon fire rang out Friday in the Utah desert where the final spikes of the Transcontinental Railroad were hammered 150 years ago. An estimated 20,000 people swarmed to the celebration at Golden Spike National Historic Park northwest of Salt Lake City.  The 1869 completion of the 1,800-mile rail line shortened cross-county travel from as long as six months in wagons and stagecoaches to about 10 days on the rails.  Consider how trans-formative that was for the nation!

The reasons why the transcontinental railroad was such a pivotal national event often are talked about to the exclusion of that what happened during the construction phase.  Starting before Fort Sumter was fired on by Southern rebels, but not concluded until the nation’s winning general of the Civil War was president, the story of this transportation feat is nothing short of remarkable.  The goal was most laudable, even if there were profiteers looking for more than a shining moment for the country.  The building phase involved the type of corruption such projects always entail, but also included avalanches, explosives placed in the worst places possible, Indian raids, and sicknesses galore.  There was also the ‘caliber’ of men who gravitated to such jobs which would allow one newspaper in particular, The Cheyenne Leader, to run a daily column titled “Last Night’s Shootings.”

As we know the end result was a phenomenal success.

In this May 10, 1869, file photo, provided by the Union Pacific, railroad officials and employees celebrate the completion of the first railroad transcontinental link in Promontory, Utah. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad was a pivotal moment in the United States, ushering in a period of progress and expansion nationwide. The Union Pacific’s Locomotive No. 119, right, and Central Pacific’s Jupiter edged forward over the golden spike that marked the joining of the nation by rail. (Andrew Russell/Union Pacific via AP, File)

People re-created the historic photo of the meeting of the rails from May 10, 1869, during the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad completion at the Golden Spike National Historical Park Friday, May 10, 2019, in Promontory, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)


Doug Foxley, left, and Spencer Stokes re-create a historic photo at the Golden Spike National Historical Park in Promontory, Utah, on Friday. (Jeffrey D. Allred / Associated Press)

Train Video Coverage Of Final Goodbye To President George Bush Aboard “Bush 4141”

Many hours of exceptional television coverage on Thursday as the nation said a final farewell to President George Herbert Walker Bush.  There are no words to give the deep power and emotion of the nostalgic feel and tone of the 70 mile train ride in Texas aboard “Bush 4141”  So instead of words here are some videos and pictures to provide the type of mood which I had inside me based on the reading of history books about other such train trips.  It has been said that Bush wanted this portion of his send-off to be more about America than him—and that is exactly how I interpreted the scenery and the scope of the drama that unfolded mile by mile by mile of track.

Inside Tour Of Bush 4141, President Bush’s Funeral Train

Thursday was a very special day for lovers of history and trains.  As a lover of both I was very much taken by the images that are so reminiscent of our history at the time a president dies.


My Memories Of Barbara Bush In Wisconsin

Everyone feels glum upon hearing the news former First Lady Barbara Bush has died.  The vast majority did not personally know her but it seems we all, in some way, feel connected to her.  She would have sat for a cup of coffee, kicked off her shoes, and been able to chat with ease—and laughed heartily, too.  That is how I always imaged her.  Someone on the national stage and yet accessible as a person if the opportunity had arrived.

Of all the politicians who have some to Wisconsin George and Barbara Bush were the ones I saw most often, and were able to ‘press the flesh’ with on rope lines.   I can assure you, having grown up in rural Wisconsin, and reading history books about national politicians and their families, that my first encounter with a major politician was most memorable.

It was a spring Saturday morning in 1988 at Madison.  I was standing alongside staunch Republicans while having the time of my life.  The presidential primary was nearing and Vice-President Bush was sparring for votes with Senator Bob Dole.  On the stage in the hotel stood George and Barbara Bush.  I had never before been so close to such a powerful couple.  Of course many in the crowd were chatting about the woman who stood and smiled, waving at times here and there at people she recognized.  It was following the address Bush made to the party faithful when people pressed forward and handshakes were given by the Vice-President and Mrs. Bush.  I was truly thrilled as a young politico to shake each of their hands.

Barbara Bush and Vice-President George Bush Madison 1988

The most politically romantic campaign rally I ever attended–and grasping fully nothing of its kind will ever compete–was on October 31, 1992 when President Bush and the First Lady made an old-fashioned whistle stop in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

It was a cold and blustery day across Wisconsin.  Light snow flurries swirled through the air as many thousands stood for hours at the old train depot.   The presidential campaign that year was winding down, and President Bush was campaigning with David McCullough’s latest book “Truman ” in his hand while reminding voters that he too could win the election as Harry did in 1948.  In spite of the polls there were still campaign stops to be made as Bush was working over-time at trying to making his Truman moment come true.

A Republican friend of mine at the Capitol had secured tickets for my parents and family, including nieces and nephews.   We had arrived very early which allowed us to stand up front near the podium allowing the young ones in my family to have a moment they will  never forget. (It needs to be noted that in 1946 this is where my mother’s family had debarked upon their arrival from Ozone, Arkansas.)

At about 5:00 P.M. off in the distance the lonesome sound of the train whistle was heard and the crowd exploded with cheers.  As the big locomotive brought the long line of train cars into the depot the President and his family were waving and ready to embrace the folks who were fully-charged for a campaign pitch.  There were many of the Bush grand kids bouncing about with exuberance and Barbara was doing her best to keep them somewhat under control.

While nothing will ever surpass that event for political charm there was one other rally that stands out as it was the first time I was able to shake hands with a President and First Lady.

My nephew, Troy, and I drove to Waukesha in the fall of 1992 for a large outdoor Bush rally.  We arrived a bit late, and were stuck way in the back of the crowd.  I really wanted to be the best uncle possible so following the impassioned plea for re-election I took the lead along the perimeter rope line as we edged our way through the throngs.  We maneuvered ourselves until up front along the roped section not far from the podium. It was there we waited for a couple minutes and then the hands of a President and First Lady were making contact to our right.  And then it was our turn!

There are no words to describe the feeling of pressing the flesh with a president. I recall looking into his eyes.  And it goes without saying the warmth and smile of Barbara as she moved along the line created the feeling as if she could linger and the conversation would be instantaneous and easy.

Barbara Bush was not a politician but had the first ingredient required—an ability to connect with people.

That is what makes us all feel sad upon hearing about her death.

Riding The Rails With Fred Mertz—A Train Ride From Washington, D.C. To Chicago On The Capitol Limited

It may seem odd but the story of my train trip starts in Madison with a security guard at the airport groping me in ways that were not welcoming. I was pulled from the TSA line to have my suitcase opened and my over-the-shoulder bag examined. As I was having fingers slipped into the waistband of my jeans and hands sternly rubbing up between my legs I asked in probably a less than Midwestern tone what was happening.   As seconds passed an agent said it appeared that I had an ammunition cartridge in my shoulder bag.

Since I am not even sure I have ever shot a handgun in my life and clearly know I would never own one the idea that I had a weapon or ammo in my possession was simply ridiculous.   When they pulled the offending ‘weapon’ from my bag, which had produced anxiety for all, I simply said,   “That is my harmonica! I am going on a train trip!”

To some overly excitable ones that simple instrument of Americana that has made train rides so iconic had created high tension. While the TSA agents watched I simply broke into a big smile and started to put my shirt back inside my jeans, and belt on. Had I thought they would not lock me away I would have even given a quick musical riff.

It was nine days later that James and I walked through the historical Union Station in Washington, D.C., which is located only a few blocks from Capitol Hill. We were about to set out on my first real train ride.   James had done so years before but to make sure this trip was perfect he had bought a sleeper car so the journey would be relaxing and not overly taxing on energy reserves.

With our bags stowed away and the whistle blowing the gentle motion started that moved us away from the station and soon outside the city. It was not long before we had stopped at the Rockland, Maryland station upon leaving a small white church that could be viewed. There in a cemetery is the coffin with the remains of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The images of America started passing the windows. There were sections where the sycamore trees with their peeling bark seemed to be everywhere. The farms with their sloping hills of green looked lush. Horse farms with young ponies bouncing about in the late spring afternoon were as idyllic as the words make them sound. The brown of the Potomac River as we crossed it, and often rode the rails alongside it, seemed to be churning and restless.

James sat across from me and started one of the many books we had purchased on the trip. As I watched the landscapes turn from farm to small town and then back to forests he read portions aloud from David McCullough’s latest book, The American Spirit: Who We Are And What We Stand For. 

As he read portions about history and civics a long train that ran parallel to ours and carried countless cars of coal whizzed by.   Farms gave way to the mountains in West Virginia where the rocks had been blasted to make way for the rails. It was delightful to see bursting out of the seams of the rocks countless rose bushes that had found a way to live and add their beauty for train passengers.

As we entered Harpers Ferry the raindrops started falling from dark clouds that had dominated the skies of the region throughout the day. It was here that John Brown had hoped to start a slave revolt across the South in 1859.

As the evening continued we moved to the observation car and watched as the rolling hills and winding waterways and mountain views continued to pull at the senses. The whistle blew at every road crossing and small town along the way. The soft rumble and jostle of the train cars over the rails made me aware that babies must fall asleep easily on such a ride.

No babes were on this trip but a young sweet-faced Mennonite girl grinned at me showing new teeth starting to grow. She sat next to her family. I said hello and after asking how she liked the ride she smiled even more broadly and told me it was her first train ride. I said “Me too!’ She kept looking and smiling for many minutes as the train rumbled along.

James and I enjoy eating dinner later in the evening so it was perfect that we had selected an 8 PM dining car time.   As we entered the car and sat down I must say I thought of my sister, not a natural reaction at all given the severe differences I have with her. But it was the two of us that commented for years on the scene of the dining car on the Truman-like train that had stopped in October 1992 in Plover, Wisconsin, and allowed President Bush to campaign for re-election. Then the dining car was lit with white tablecloths spread over them, as waiters were ready to take orders.   Now as the Capitol Limited rolled along the darkening night in Pennsylvania that dream for me of eating such a meal would come true.

Our table mates that evening were a longtime married and retired couple from Ely, Minnesota. The conversation flowed, as she was a former employee with a state library associated with the workings of the legislature. The topics of their past train rides and our gardens and past experiences of one kind or another were effortless. The food was really very good and 90 minutes into the meal, which by then had reached the dessert stage, meant that they were yawning and ready to settle down for the night. When James and I asked how the food bills were handled the couple that had traveled often this way said it was already paid for in the ticket for those in the sleeping cars. I had researched so many areas of the trip to be prepared but had overlooked that item. With a nice tip for the waiters, we all departed.

At 11 PM, per our request, Perry, a jocular and truly most helpful Amtrak employee came to put our beds together.   I had launched into The Intimate Lives Of The Founding Fathers by Thomas Fleming who is a scholar of the Revolutionary period, purchased at the Library of Congress. James and I placed our books away and got ready for sleep. But that was not easy when there are sights to see such as the colorful lights on the Pittsburgh bridge that demand to be viewed.

With the lights in the car out and the conversations ended it was time to allow the mind to reflect as the dark stretches of the countryside slipped away without making any impression.   It was then I thought of people like Eric Severaid who had ridden the rails in the Great Depression. John Steinbeck was another.   I thought of how Lyndon Johnson, as a young congressman, had made it his mission to get young men out of boxcars and into jobs.

My mind went back to my Grandma Humphrey, who I was too young to ever know before she passed, who always it was told to me, had food for the men who jumped off the train near the family home in Coloma, Wisconsin. The home was near to the tracks where hoboes would jump off and after sleeping the night in the barn and assisting with some chores for food would be off again on the rails.   As the whistle blew and the night scenes passed the images from the pages of history were what lulled me to sleep.

The ride for me was sleep-inducing and I actually was so deep into slumber I had dreams. When I would stir and turn over the whistle in the night was a soothing tonic and I fell back to sleep.

I am not a morning person.   Never have been. But at 6 AM I was awake and heard others rustling about in the train car. I got ready, slipped on my shoes, and walked into the main aisle of the car and it was there I saw Fred Mertz’s double.

He was halfway into his sleeping car and halfway out. But as he stood and folded some clothes it was a sight to behold. On his head was a sleeping cap that came from the set of a Christmas Carol where Scrooge prepares for bed. On his short and round body was a sleeping gown that went halfway past his knees. It was white with thin red faded stripes. In another era, someone would have asked for his autograph. Later I would see him once more dressed for breakfast and he even had the belt pulled too far northwards with his pants pulled high.

I was not interested in food but James and I still made our way to the dining car. And that is when I thought of my folks. On each summer trip out west, there was always the morning coffee and eggs that made mom comment that the smell was so welcome at the start of another day of travel. Then she added, “and I do not have to do the dishes”. With the aroma of freshly made coffee and my first sips, everything clicked.

The eggs and potatoes were nicely prepared and the table guests this time were two men who were veterans. One of them was an African American born in Talladega, Mississippi.   He had served in Vietnam and was now an assistant pastor in California with a Baptist church. He had liberal perspectives about politics and issues and was truly an engaging person.   Soon James was talking about a poem by Hugo and the man was taking notes that he thought might make for a sermon.

After a few more hours of traveling through Indiana, we passed Elkhart which was the inspiration for the Broadway play The Music Man which my high school put on one year. Once we entered the working city of Gary it was only a short time before the journey ended in downtown Chicago.

So why does this all matter? Why does train travel still have relevancy in modern America when a plane can take a person in a matter of a few hours what an Amtrak trip does in 19 hours?

First, everything that is faster is not necessarily better. To see the small towns and villages, the streams and contours of the land allow us to connect with one another as fellow citizens.   So much beauty and perspective are lost at 25,000 feet.

Second, there is something very special about traveling with others and not being strapped to a seat in a flying tube. Walking around and sitting here and there and talking with new folks—such as the two women from New York who decided to travel coast to coast on the train just to have the experience—is relaxing.   Their destination was Seattle.

One of the women moved near me and showed me on her phone where the train was in relation to Hancock on the Maryland and West Virginia state lines. I had mentioned my interest in the place as I had come from another Hancock.   The one we would pass straddled the Potomac River with its north bank in Maryland, its south bank in West Virginia, and its extreme northern edge in Pennsylvania. We talked for about half an hour and had a grand time.

The third reason train travel is important is that it shows the connections we have in this broad nation of many competing interests.   From Maryland and the areas of economic need in West Virginia on across the states to the homes in Gary, there were homes flying the American flag.   Some were on back porches of homes needing to be scraped and painted. Others were on a pole in lawns that were manicured while others needed mowing and then baling. But each time I saw one flying it was confirmation that the tissue that unites us is still there and real.   You cannot see that from the seats of a Delta flight and it is not a small thing to witness or feel.

I cannot more highly recommend that those who read this long account of my travel by train take a similar journey.

Train Whistles Not Appreciated By Some Folks In Madison

This morning I was greeted in my email with some folks who seem not to appreciate the train whistles that at times are heard in our neighborhood.  I just shake my head.

It is nearing a decade since I moved to Madison’s isthmus and can now say living within earshot of the tracks my love of the train whistle has only grown stronger.  When I lived on the west side of Madison, and the air was clear late at night so sound could easily travel, I would often hear the train whistle near Middleton.  The plaintive cry from the engine would sing-song its way over the neighborhood, and stir my soul.  There is a quality to the sound of a train in the night that conjures up images of adventure, romance, and history.

When we moved to our Victorian I was pleased to know that the train tracks were just a few blocks away, and I could hear the whistle almost daily.  In fact, on our many long walks through the neighborhood James and I have often walked towards the sound of the train whistle, only to stand near the tracks and feel the rumble and power as the cars roll on to their destination.

I admit there is real noise pollution in our city, and those disturbances should be curtailed.  Such things as car speakers with more bass and volume than brain matter in the driver’s head, or the need to talk louder when conversing on a cell phone while in a public place, are two issues the ‘no whistle’ crowd may want to deal with first.

However, in the still of the night as the train lumbers along in Madison and blows the lonesome whistle, think of those who once jumped on board and traveled as far as they could with a hope and perhaps an old harmonica.  The whistle is a call to reflect on the past, to dream of far of places, and faces of the past who also heard the whistles and took a chance on riding the rails.

Now go and enjoy a train whistle near you!

Traveling North Via Train In Russia

One of those fun reads that always comes in the last double issue of the year.


What makes trains weigh so heavily on Russia’s consciousness is the sheer size of the land mass. European railway journeys, with their short distances between stations and the constant sight of human life outside the window, leave little time or space for thought or soul-searching. In Russia, however, train journeys are measured in days and nights rather than hours. It takes six days to travel from Moscow to Vladivostok, a distance of more than 9,000km. All one sees is forest, occasionally interrupted by a clearing or uncultivated fields cloaked, in winter, with snow. You can go for hours, sometimes days, without seeing a settlement or a soul. “In western Europe people die because their space is cramped and suffocating,” Chekhov wrote in a letter. “In Russia they die because the space is an endless expanse.”

As a result, trains rumble through Russian literature and poetry with remarkable frequency. Rail travel occupies the same place in Russian culture as the road trip in America. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina meets Vronsky at a railway station at the beginning of the novel and ends her life under a train. (Tolstoy, too, happened to die at a station.) In Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago”, the comfortable, softly upholstered trains at the beginning of the novel give way to the freight trains in which Zhivago and his wife escape a Moscow devastated by revolution and civil war.