After his death, Harding trip home not a lonely one

WAY BACK WHEN

August 10, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

With the hint of scandal beginning to swirl around his administration and the onset of failing health and despondency, President Warren G. Harding was beginning to doubt his ability to function as the nation's chief executive.

In 1922, he told a friend, "I'm not fit for this office and should never have been here."

He longed for the end of his term, when he could return home to his beloved Marion, Ohio, and become a private citizen, far away from the rigors and stress of his office. "A great many people think it is a fine thing to be president. ... But I know better, and I would like nothing better than to be a Marionite again," said Harding.

He suffered a serious case of the flu in the beginning of 1923, and even though he had given up drinking, he continued to smoke heavily. "I am sick - I am all in. ... I am very weary and tired, and I need rest," Harding told Charles Evans Hughes, his secretary of state.

In mid-June, Harding's physician, Dr. Charles E. Sawyer, thought an extended trip would improve Harding's health and mental attitude. But when he learned the president had planned a 7,500-mile combination rail and steamship journey to Alaska, he thought the trip was far too arduous.

Plans called for the presidential train to travel westward from Washington to St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, Salt Lake City, Helena, Spokane and Portland to Tacoma. On July 5, the presidential party would board the USS Henderson for the voyage to Alaska.

Harding was to return to Seattle on July 27, and then travel by train to San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, where he would board a ship and return to Washington by way of the Panama Canal. Arriving in San Francisco on July 29, Harding had suffered an "acute gastrointestinal attack," brought on by tainted crab meat.

As his health continued to deteriorate, Harding was put to bed in the Palace Hotel. His wife, Florence Kling Harding, was sitting by his bedside reading aloud from the Saturday Evening Post, when he was stricken with a cerebral hemorrhage. As doctors feverishly worked to save the president's life, his wife softly called "Warren, Warren, Warren" repeatedly. He died at 7:30 p.m. on Aug 2. He was 58.

News of Harding's death flashed across the nation at 7:51 p.m. A Western Union telegram was sent to Vice President Calvin Coolidge, who was visiting his father's home in rural Plymouth Notch, Vt.

"He dressed quickly and came downstairs to meet the newspapermen who arrived hard on the heels of the messenger. A trifle pale, but steady, solemn and quiet as always is his wont, he walked with simple dignity down the old stairway and into the homey sitting room where the newspapermen awaited him. Mrs. Coolidge, in gray, followed him, weeping," reported The Sun.

Coolidge took the oath of office by flickering kerosene lamp at 2:47 a.m., sworn in by his father, a notary public, after the prescribed constitutional text had been phoned from Washington.

Early in the morning of Aug. 3, as flags flew at half-staff, Harding, dressed in a cutaway coat and black trousers, rested in an open casket placed in the drawing room of the Palace Hotel's presidential suite. Groups of mourners entered and left the room, gazing at the president for the last time.

Later that evening, the presidential train began its journey eastward. Harding's remains were placed aboard the private Pullman car Superb, aboard a bier near a window, so it was visible to the crowds that stood trackside.

"It was a memorable trip. Reporters on the train were awed by the outpouring of people. The crowds were immense. Every town, every city, every hamlet turned out mourning people, standing silently or kneeling by the tracks and on the station platforms," wrote Robert K. Murray in his 1969 book, The Harding Era.

When the train arrived several hours late in Chicago, the crowds were so enormous that a pilot locomotive slowly chugged ahead of the presidential special, forcing people off the tracks. The crowds continued to build as the train slowly crossed Ohio.

Children and adults placed coins on the track. They would become instant souvenirs of the occasion after being smashed flat by the weight of the train's heavy steel wheels.

At the end of its transcontinental lap toward Washington, the train, pulled by two heavy steam engines, crossed the Allegheny Mountains into Maryland. At Cumberland, the train stopped so engines could be changed. A Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Pacific Class 4-6-2 wheeled locomotive, draped in bunting, coupled onto the train.

"When the Harding train entered the city the bells of its two engines tolled in concert with those of the city's churches. The crowds, which had been held back by hurriedly formed police lines, broke away and came within a foot of the tracks as the train came to a stop," observed The Sun. "There was no noise, no excitement, simply a determination of Marylanders to come as near as possible to the vehicle that bore the body of the beloved Chieftain of the Nation."

The train finally arrived at Washington's Union Station at 10:22 p.m. on Aug. 7, slowly backing into the station, which placed the presidential car nearest the station waiting room. The casket, covered in the flag and with a single wreath, was removed from the Superb and transferred to a caisson, which conveyed it to the East Room of the White House.

On the return trip to Marion for burial, the train traveled a different route. It arrived in Baltimore and then traveled up the Pennsylvania Railroad to York and Harrisburg, as crowds, in a repetition of its earlier journey, lined the right-of-way. The train reached Marion on Aug. 9, and Harding was buried the next day.

The Superb, which continued in rail service until 1969, is the only passenger car to have transported the casket of a president who died while in office. Today, the now restored car is open to the public and is part of the Southwestern Railway Museum collection in Duluth, Ga.

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