Ulysses S. Grant and the Wilderness of Pennsylvania (part two)

"Citizen" Grant
“Citizen” Grant

part two of a three-part series

Yesterday’s installment set up Ulysses S. Grant’s trip to see the Kinzua Viaduct in McKean County, Pennsylvania—”The Pennsylvania Wilds”—on November 16, 1883, 132 years ago today. Author Chris Mackowski is originally from McKean County, and he discovered this story while researching his book Grant’s Last Battle.

The city of Bradford was “shaken from its depths and the citizens thrown into a fever of excitement” at the news of Grant’s pending arrival, The McKean County Miner reported on November 16.

The Bradford Era reported that “the famous commander” was “traveling as a simple American citizen on his own business.” Dignitaries, nonetheless wanting to ensure he was “warmly welcomed to the land of grease,” set a full itinerary: “One of the principal objects of this side excursion to Bradford is to enable the party to examine the big bridge, the magnitude of which they as railroad men will be apt to appreciate,” The Era said. Aside from that, city fathers planned to show off the Kendall refinery—“where our greasy product starts on its long journey to the seaboard”—and have an oil well torpedoed “for the benefit of the party.” They anticipated an overnight stay with Senator Emory “at his spacious residences on Congress Street” and, if possible, a concert the next day.

“It is desired that all citizens, irrespective of party, join in the spontaneous bestowal of respect to the hero of Appomattox and ex-president,” the paper entreatied, “so that his welcome to the Oil region shall be another proof of Bradford’s proverbial hospitality.”

Grant headed to McKean County to visit the Kinzua Viaduct. Today, most of the bridge lays in ruins.
Grant headed to McKean County to visit the Kinzua Viaduct. Today, most of the bridge lays in ruins.

A crowd of between 1,000 and 1,500 people waited at the train station in the winter cold for the train’s arrival—and their wait stretched on and on. Every town along the route from Rochester sent dignitaries to meet Grant, slowing the progress of the train. “All along the line,” Ferdinand Ward recalled, “delegations were made up and would not hear of a refusal to stop that they might give the General a handshake or hear a few words from his lips.”

No sooner had we left one place than a delegation from the next would ask that he stop, and so all along the line these informal receptions were held from the rear platform of our car, when from five hundred to two thousand people would greet him with cheers and hearty enthusiasm.

I never realized more fully than I did on that trip how much this great man was loved by the people.

As the train neared Bradford, something jogged Grant’s memory. He seemed to recall being there before. One of the local dignitaries assured him, though, that he had not.

But Grant had come to McKean County before, as president of the United States, in August of 1869. He spent several days of his summer holiday with General Thomas Kane, former commander of the Pennsylvania Bucktails, fishing and horseback riding. “The President has thrown off his usual reserve here,” The McKean County Miner reported on Sept. 2, 1869, “ and exhibits a vivacity of manner and freedom of conversation which would probably surprise some people.”

Grant himself declared at the time: “I have never enjoyed myself more since I was a boy, than I have this day.”

That had been at the height of summer; now, on the cusp of winter fourteen years later, with an early snowfall masking the landscape, Grant had little to conjure more than vague memories for him.

Grant’s train finally pulled into Bradford at 1:30 in the afternoon, met by a tumultuous greeting undimmed by the cold.

The general appeared on the rear platform of the train “dressed in a plain business suit and overcoat of dark color and a regulation beaver hat,” a reporter recorded. “His years appear to sit lightly on him and his Scottish ancestry would lead one to think that he is good for twenty years to come. . . . His eyes wear the eagle-like expression that was so noticeable in him throughout his career in the army. . . . There was a conspicuous absence of the careworn expression that saddened his countenance during many of the grave scenes through which he passed.”

A sincerely gracious man, Grant extended his thanks to the crowd. “I would be pleased to remain with you . . . and the citizens of Bradford a few hours, but I am in the hands of General Spencer, who has charge of our private excursion,” he told them. “I am surprised that our presence is known as it was our intention when we started to out to visit the big bridge as quietly as I could.”

He nonetheless took time to shake hands with well-wishers. “Many old soldiers with eyes dimmed with emotion pressed forward to grasp the hand of the old commander,” the reporter wrote.

The handshaking process was brought to a summary close by Ed Sutherland, the ponderous landlord of the Black Bear Hotel, who extended his massive right hand, which has only the stub of a thumb, and enfolded the General’s fingers in a giant grip. In his enthusiasm he forgot his stumpy thumb, which bored into the tender flesh of the hero and caused him to wince with pain. A local scribe noticed the crimson flush rise to the General’s cheek and heard a smothered exclamation as though he was displeased.

Awkward apologies were made. Grant tried to brush off the incident as he retreated back into his train car. In handshaking with 1,500 people, he told the reporter, he did not have time to examine the hands presented.

The train rumbled onward into the Appalachians, fifteen miles to go.

Kinzua Ruins-Google Earth
“The big bridge” was so big that its ruins can still be seen from space. (photo courtesy Google Maps)

Tomorrow’s installment completes the story with Grant’s arrival at the viaduct, known as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!