Exploring the collections of the Mercantile Library:

Aquatic Rallies and Whistle-Stop Cruises:
A Brief History of Presidential Campaigns and Waterways
The 2020 presidential campaign will likely be analyzed by historians and political scientists for generations to come. The limitations of campaigning during a global pandemic have forced supporters and candidates to find creative ways to reach voters. Throughout the summer and fall, massive so called “flotillas” with hundreds of supporters have taken to the nation’s rivers, lakes, and coasts in socially distant boat parades and aquatic rallies. Although the extreme popularity in boat campaign rallies is an interesting side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, the connection between presidential campaigns and waterways is far from new.
From the first presidential campaigns through the mid-19th century, candidates didn’t usually campaign for themselves. They served as nominees, but it was deemed inappropriate for them to solicit votes directly. They instead relied on surrogates and supporters, newspapers, and commercial publishers to spread the word. River and boat imagery were often used in political cartoons, broadsides, and pamphlets, as candidates sought to appeal to voters, knowing rivers and harbors were a central part of their lives. Just as rivers became a pervasive and recognized symbol for the American West in early American art and literature, so too were rivers prominently featured in presidential campaign literature and political cartoons.
Advertisement for presidential candidate Henry Clay in the Baltimore Patriot, a prominent Whig newspaper, May 2, 1844. This image is full of American symbols including oak leaves, a draped flag, wheat and plough, and a rolled constitution. There is a river and hills crowded with supporters on the left and a harbor and large ships on the right.
From the Historic Newspaper Collection, St. Louis Mercantile Library
Advertisement for President William Henry Harrison in the 1841 Tippecanoe Almanac. This idyllic farm scene is set on a riverbank. The river can be seen in the background, by Harrison’s left elbow.
From the Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library
President Benjamin Harrison is largely credited as the first president to actively campaign for himself in 1888. He launched a shift in public opinion as to how candidates could and should appeal to voters. By this time, railroads had largely superseded waterways as the preferred mode of transportation. Whistle-stop tours came to dominate American presidential campaigns in the early and mid-20th century. Candidates traveled by train, making brief appearances or speeches at a small number of towns over a short period of time. In the late 20th century, several presidential candidates reinvented the whistle-stop tour into whistle-stop cruises, reconnecting presidential campaigns with our nation’s rivers.
In September 1976 President Gerald Ford made a weekend campaign tour of the South by plane, motorcade, and riverboat in an effort to appeal to southern voters. The trip was decided after White House Staff Assistant Bob Goodwin gave Ford a brochure for the sternwheeler steamboat Natchez IX. Ford looked it over and could hardly wait to show his wife. The campaign organized the trip for two days after the first face-to-face debate between Ford and his challenger Jimmy Carter.
Brochure for Natchez Mississippi River Cruise, ca. 1980; Natchez Boarding Ticket, 1982; photograph of Natchez IX, 1982.
From the Ruth Ferris Collection, Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library
The weekend campaign tour started with a 7-hour, 53-mile whistle-stop cruise aboard the Natchez from the ferry landing at Lutcher, Louisiana to the Toulouse street wharf in New Orleans. To prepare for the president's visit, crew had to remove the gift shop stock, racks, and showcases from the Texas deck and install doors in the passageway to create a 15 x 40 ft. presidential suite that was lavishly furnished by the White House. Bar stools and cocktail tables were removed from both bars and the lounge was converted into a press room where endorsements from various supporters and political figures were broadcast. A massive amount of communication equipment was brought onboard, since national security required the president be able to communicate from the Natchez with any country in the world at any time. There were 4 direct lines to the White House in the president's suite and 40 phones in the main bar for the press.
The boat cruised down the river, escorted by the Coast Guard, an Army helicopter, and police cars driving parallel on the levees. Every boat they passed exchanged whistles and cheers, and crowds gathered along the banks waving signs. On the decks, musicians played jazz and the president’s party relaxed in the sun. At each scheduled stop, the president greeted crowds, coming ashore for a short speech, while a navy demolition team checked the boat’s hull and harbor police patrolled the area. When they arrived at the Toulouse Warf, the president spoke to an estimated 10,000 people from the aft Texas deck before disembarking for the rest of his campaign tour across the South.

President Jimmy Carter took a page out of his predecessor's book in August 1979 when he took a week-long whistle-stop cruise of the Upper Mississippi on the sternwheeler steamboat Delta Queen. Carter planned the trip as a summer vacation with his family where he could campaign for his energy policy and connect with voters in Midwestern states that would be crucial to his re-election effort. The trip started in St. Paul, Minnesota and finished in St. Louis, Missouri, with numerous stops along the way. During these stops, Carter attended rallies, visited factories, gave a radio interview, and toured Mark Twain’s home and nearby cave in Hannibal, Missouri.
Photograph of President Jimmy Carter, First Lady Rosalynn Carter, and daughter Amy Carter disembarking Delta Queen, August 1979.
From the St. Louis Globe Democrat Collection, St. Louis Mercantile Library
Carter’s cruise was very different from Ford’s. The ship was decked out in red, white, and blue bunting and a Coast Guard lifeboat accompanied the steamer, but no major alterations were made to accommodate the president. Rather than booking a private charter, limiting the boat to the presidential party and press, Carter traveled and interacted with the 150 ordinary citizens who were fellow passengers enjoying the same cruise. A man from Milwaukee invited Carter to join him for a nightcap, and, to his surprise, Carter and his wife Rosalynn dropped by the Texas Lounge to join him that evening. Carter’s daughter Amy, age 11, ran around the deck and played bingo and cards in the lounge with a group of young girls she met aboard. Eventually the Delta Queen docked at the foot of the Gateway Arch and a big crowd greeted the president before he and his family disembarked.
Photograph of Delta Queen, 1972
From the Ruth Ferris Collection, Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library
In 2000 Vice President Al Gore and Senator Joseph Lieberman used the symbolism of the Mississippi to mount their populist challenge in a four-day, 390-mile journey on the riverboat Mark Twain. The kickoff event in La Crosse Wisconsin featured a Mark Twain impersonator, a barbershop quartet, and a high school marching band playing ''God Bless America.'' Gore and Lieberman stood at the stern of the Mark Twain under an American flag, waving to the crowd as the boat pushed off. The riverboat was decorated in red, white, and blue bunting and flew a banner that read, "Setting the Course for America's Future." Like those before him, Gore made numerous stops for rallies and campaign events as he traveled down the Mississippi, before disembarking in Hannibal, Missouri.
Since the founding of our country, Waterways have played a central role in American presidential campaigns; whether serving as symbolism in advertisements and political cartoons, as a physical or metaphorical vehicle to connect candidates with voters in the Heartland and South, or as a venue in which to hold socially distant rallies and parades during a global pandemic. The relationship between waterways and presidential campaigns is long, diverse, and ever-evolving with the times. It is not a stretch to say rivers and river communities have influenced presidential campaigns and the outcomes of elections, nor that they will continue to do so far into the future.
Fun Trivia:
  • Just 20 minutes underway into Ford’s trip on the Natchez, a member of the press had a heart attack. The president’s doctor and nurse, who thankfully were aboard, administered CPR and stabilized the man, then rushed him to a hospital on a Coast Guard boat. He survived.
  • The morning of the start of Ford’s trip, the chief engineer was awakened at 4:30 am by Secret Service who found his shaving kit in the washing machine and believed it was a bomb.
  • During his trip, Carter was in his daily jogging phase. Passengers frequently complained that he and his Secret Service agents pounded past their rooms early in the morning.
  • When Carter visited the cave in Hannibal, Secret Service agents had to sweep the entire six-mile cave for explosives.
  • During Gore’s trip, the Mark Twain passed a high school marching band waiting on the banks. Gore called over the public address system for them to play ''On Wisconsin,'' not realizing he was in Lansing, Iowa.
  • At one point during the trip, Gore shook hands for 15 minutes as a high school band played songs, including "Macho Man" by the Village People. The trip featured other quirky elements, such as a team of water skiers that glided by in formation.
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