Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Obama's whistle-stop to office will begin in Philaelphia

Nearly 150 years ago, a newly elected president from Illinois rode a train through Philadelphia on his way to his inauguration, pausing to speak to people here.

Nearly 150 years ago, a newly elected president from Illinois rode a train through Philadelphia on his way to his inauguration, pausing to speak to people here.

Barack Obama plans to do the same.

In a trip that will echo the 1861 journey of Abraham Lincoln, officials announced yesterday that Obama will travel to his inaugural by railroad, departing from Philadelphia and hosting events along the way in Wilmington and Baltimore.

Inaugural planners depict the trip as the last leg of a journey that has taken the president-elect from the steps of the Old State Capitol in Illinois to the steps of the Capitol in Washington.

On Jan. 17, three days before he is sworn in as the 44th president, Obama will appear at an event in Philadelphia, then board a train to Wilmington. It's unclear whether he plans to spend the night of Jan. 16 in the Philadelphia area or if he will arrive here early that morning.

The nature of the event to be held in Philadelphia also was unclear yesterday. Sites that might be likely venues to host Obama, such as the National Constitution Center and Independence Hall, had received no word on the possible plans of the president-elect, officials at those institutions said yesterday. The governor's office likewise had no information.

At the first stop, in Delaware, Obama and his family will be joined by Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his family. They'll travel to Baltimore, hold another event there, and are expected to arrive in Washington at night, according to officials at the Presidential Inaugural Committee in Washington.

Obama will take office on Jan. 20.

The trip, planning officials said, is designed to highlight the inaugural theme, "Renewing America's Promise," through events in three key cities: Philadelphia, where the promise was realized in 1776; Baltimore, where it was defended in the War of 1812; and Washington, where it will be renewed.

Emmett Beliveau, executive director of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, said one goal is to "include as many Americans as possible who wish to participate, but can't be in Washington. . . . These events will allow us to do that while honoring the rich history and tradition of previous inaugural journeys."

Since the days of John Quincy Adams, trains have borne presidents to office, to campaign stops in towns small and large, and often to their own funeral services and resting places.

The tradition of whistle-stop tours saw its apex under Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, and had all but vanished by the time Dwight D. Eisenhower left office. The growing ease of air and interstate highway travel led presidents off the rails, though plenty of Americans fondly recall that earlier time.

"A lot of it is nostalgia," said Bob Withers, author of

The President Travels by Train: Politics and Pullmans


Withers, of Huntington, W. Va., believes much of the romance of presidential-train travels stems from Truman's come-from-behind victory over New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey. The embattled president took his case to the people, and they responded. "A lot of people credit the train trips with doing it," Withers said.

Withers' own love of presidential train history began in second grade, when his mother took him out of school to see Eisenhower speak from a rail platform.

"I waved at him," Withers recalled, "and he waved back."

Years later, he watched Eisenhower's funeral train pass through town.

Lincoln's trip to his inaugural ranks among the most famous of presidential rail journeys, partly because it included what became known as "the Baltimore Plot," a suspected assassination plan.

Lincoln started his one-week journey in Springfield, Ill., and moved through cities in Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania, his stops timed to meet the train's need for fuel, water and supplies.

At Independence Hall, near the George Washington statue, is a marker that shows where Lincoln stood as he raised a flag on Feb. 22, 1861. The presidential inauguration then was in March.

"When the flag was originally raised here, it had but 13 stars," Lincoln said that day, preparing to hoist a flag with 34 stars. "I wish to call your attention to the fact that, under the blessing of God, each additional star added to that flag has given additional prosperity and happiness to this country."

Lincoln was elected in November 1860, and left Springfield in February, since inaugurations at that time took place in March. Obama's trip will last but one day.

His rail journey commences a week of inaugural events, including a public welcome on Sunday, Jan. 18. On Monday, Obama, Biden and their families, like millions of Americans, will participate in community-service activities to celebrate Martin Luther King's Birthday.

Obama will take the oath of office on Tuesday, the ceremony followed by a luncheon in the Capitol's Statuary Hall, the Inaugural Parade and the official Inaugural Balls.