[The original version of this story posted in 2014 stated that President Truman visited Mauston, Wisconsin. A sharp-eyed former resident of Mauston noted in the comments section that Truman did not visit Mauston, but rather nearby Elroy. The Truman Presidential Library has now confirmed this, so the story has been corrected and expanded as of May 10, 2017.]
When President Harry S Truman pulled into tiny Elroy, Wisconsin on his rail tour of America in 1948, the Carl F. Hanneman family was at the station and captured several Polaroid images of the event. The grainy and out of focus photos are far from perfect, but they provide literal snapshots from one of the great political stories in American history.
Truman went on an 30,000-mile “whistle-stop” railroad tour of the nation, visiting large cities, small villages and everything in between. His 17-car train was called the Magellan. Much like his old boss President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had done, Truman made speeches from a presidential podium at the back of the train. The tour drew huge crowds wherever he went, and Mauston was no exception. According to the Truman Presidential Library, the president made up to eight speeches each day during the rail tour.
On this day, Truman started out with a speech in Mankato, Minnesota at 8:08 a.m. Other stops included Waseca, Rochester and Winona, Minnesota; and Sparta, Wisconsin. The train pulled into Elroy at 1:55 p.m. on October 14, 1948. Truman stepped to the podium and said:
I certainly do appreciate your coming out here. This was supposed to have been a water stop. I didn’t think that we would be here long enough for me to speak to you, but I am happy that we did stop long enough, and I appreciate your interest and I appreciate your coming out here to see the president.
I wish I had the chance to discuss with you all the issues in this campaign, but I haven’t the time now.
I hope you’ve been reading the speeches and statements I have been making over the country. They are in your interest, and if you vote for your own interests on the 2d of November you’ll elect a Democratic Governor and a Democratic Congressman from your district–and you’ll elect a Democratic administration in the whole United States Government. And then things will be safe and in the hands of the people.
Conventional political wisdom had Truman losing badly before a single ballot was cast. When he won the election, it was viewed as a stunning turn of events. Many will recall the famous photo of Truman holding the early edition of the Chicago Tribune with the erroneous headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” That photo was snapped at the back of the same train in St. Louis, as Truman departed for Washington.
It seems the term “whistle-stop” was considered a bit of a slight. When Republican Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio criticized the Democrat Truman for things he was saying on the “whistle-stop” tour, mayors of towns on the route of Truman’s tour reacted with indignation. “Our whistles never stop blowing,” one huffed. Crestline, Ohio, was quick to point out the 42 daily trains that served its population of 5,000. The Associated Press at the time said a whistle-stop was a “tank town, a hamlet, a mere wide place in the road.” Truman’s own comments at Elroy indicate the stop there was supposed to be only to take on water.
Of course millions of Americans live in such places, so the kerfuffle seemed a bit strange. As columnist Thomas L. Stokes noted, “Whistle-stop folks vote, too.” Stokes called the rail tour a public service, part of a president’s responsibility to communicate directly with the American people.
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