New book on ‘whistle-stop’ campaign trains describes politics and adventure throughout history

Feb 16, 2024, 10:06 PM

FILE - A group of Ohio democratic leaders greet President Truman when his train stopped briefly at ...

FILE - A group of Ohio democratic leaders greet President Truman when his train stopped briefly at Crestline, Ohio, June 4, 1948. Standing with Truman is Former Gov. Frank J. Lausche, right, and Albert A. Horstman, former democratic chairman. (AP Photo, File)

(AP Photo, File)

CRESTLINE, Ohio (AP) — From its earliest days as a village, Crestline was synonymous with trains. A railroad station inspired this northern Ohio town, railroad workers populated it and the passengers who flocked here helped it grow.

So it seems only fitting that a politician’s stop in Crestline would go on to popularize the word “whistle-stop.”

The tale of underdog 1948 presidential candidate Harry S. Truman’s decision to capitalize on the remark of an opponent — Ohio’s own “Mr. Republican,” U.S. Sen. Robert Taft — to own the term, and win the election, is just one of dozens of colorful anecdotes in Edward Segal’s new book, “Whistle-Stop Politics: Campaign Trains and the Reporters Who Covered Them.”

Segal, a former press secretary and aide to both Democratic and Republican candidates, explains that whistle-stop was a railroad term at the time to describe small towns without regularly scheduled train service. The conductor would signal the engineer that passengers needed to disembark, and the engineer “would respond with two toots of the whistle,” he writes.

By 1948, though, the term had become shorthand for describing a community that was viewed as backward or undesirable. So when Taft accused Truman — not long after his “special” train had stopped in Crestline — of going around the country on this campaign train tour “blackguarding (attacking) Congress at every whistle-stop,” Truman embraced the opportunity.

The Democratic National Committee asked voters, “Was it nice of the Senator to call you a whistle-stop?” Seventy-three percent of respondents said they didn’t approve. Truman began using the term himself, Segal writes, and it soon lost its pejorative meaning.

Altogether, Segal has cataloged at least 180 campaign train trips throughout U.S. history — from William Henry Harrison to Joe Biden, with dozens of presidents, vice presidents, first ladies, representatives, senators and governors in between. He continues to update the record on this uniquely “American invention” on the book’s website: www.whistlestoppolitics.com.

The project was inspired by Segal’s personal experience organizing a whistle-stop campaign tour for Republican U.S. Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma, for whom he was serving as press secretary in 1984.

“He wanted press coverage, and I said, ‘Congressman, how are we going to generate press coverage for you?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. That’s your problem to figure out,’” Segal said in an interview.

Segal, a self-described “recovering political science major,” thought immediately of Truman’s famous underdog campaign of 1948. “And it turns out there was a set of workable train tracks in the congressman’s district,” he said.

The letters and interviews used to inform the book date back to that time. They include: George McGovern, Adlai Stevenson III, Jody Powell, other candidates and candidates’ relatives and a host of journalists. Other details are drawn from books, news accounts, and historical documents, photographs and political cartoons.

Segal describes in some detail how campaigns organized these “traveling circuses.” Routes had to be determined, trains located and secured, and then they had to be outfitted for the candidate — oftentimes a sitting president — VIPs, security and railroad personnel, and the press. Technology was always state-of-the-art, from the early days of telegraphs to telephones and beyond, he writes.

The book also revisits whistle-stop speeches and the crowds that gathered to hear the likes of Robert Kennedy, Richard Nixon, George Bush or Barack Obama. It recounts, too, tales of hecklers, pranksters and protesters and describes the ordeal of the traveling press.

The stories are at times humorous, at times harrowing — as when one reporter nearly got left behind by President Theodore Roosevelt’s campaign train in 1904 when he got off during a short stop to buy stationery. As the train pulled out, and the reporter “ran at top speed, puffing and huffing” to hop aboard. It was Roosevelt himself who pulled him up.

Sometimes campaign trains were used in creative ways, too, as when comedian Gracie Allen pretended to run for president in 1940, as the nation was recovering from the Great Depression.

“Gracie ran as a candidate of the Surprise Party,” Segal wrote. “The origin of the party’s name was as much a joke as the rest of the campaign. She explained that her mother was a Democrat, her father was a Republican, and that she had been born a Surprise.”

Grabbing commercial attention has also been a motivator for some whistle-stop parodies. In 1972, Winnie the Pooh launched a bid for the White House from Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A., then went on a two-week whistle-stop tour with his trusted advisers, Tigger and Eeyore.

Back in Crestline, Mayor Linda Horning Pitt is buoyed by the fresh attention on her town. Crestline — once “all about the railroad,” she said — has suffered since Amtrak pulled out in the 1990s, but its new train-themed logo and renovated historical museum with a railroad theme are holding space for the future.

On Thursday, All Aboard Ohio is coming to town to update residents on efforts to secure funding from the Federal Railroad Administration and state of Ohio for new passenger rail service across the state. Pitt has been rallying folks to show up and promote Crestline as one of the stops.

“I see it helping everybody,” she said.

The name of the event? The Whistle Stop Tour.


This corrects to remove the wrong name of a reporter who was helped onto the train by Theodore Roosevelt.

United States News

Associated Press

Trump’s history-making hush money trial starts Monday with jury selection

NEW YORK (AP) — In a singular moment for American history, the hush money trial of former President Donald Trump begins Monday with jury selection. It’s the first criminal trial of a former commander in chief and the first of Trump’s four indictments to go to trial. Because Trump is the presumptive nominee for this […]

1 hour ago

Tracy Toulou...

Associated Press

How to tackle crime in Indian Country? Empower tribal justice, ex-Justice Department official says

A recently retired director of the Justice Dept. says the federal government hasn't given tribal justice systems equal recognition.

3 hours ago

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson...

Associated Press

House Speaker Mike Johnson says he will push for aid to Israel and Ukraine this week

House Speaker Mike Johnson said Sunday he will try to advance wartime aid for Israel this week, along with funding for Ukraine.

4 hours ago

Associated Press

Semiautomatic firearm ban passes Colorado’s House, heads to Senate

DENVER (AP) — Colorado’s Democratic-controlled House on Sunday passed a bill that would ban the sale and transfer of semiautomatic firearms, a major step for the legislation after roughly the same bill was swiftly killed by Democrats last year. The bill, which passed on a 35-27 vote, is now on its way to the Democratic-led […]

6 hours ago

Associated Press

Four people charged in the case of 2 women missing from Oklahoma

Four people were arrested and charged with murder and kidnapping over the weekend in connection with the disappearances of two Oklahoma women. Veronica Butler, 27; and Jilian Kelley, 39, of Hugoton, Kansas, were driving through the Oklahoma panhandle to pick up Butler’s children for a March 30 birthday party in Kansas but never showed up. […]

11 hours ago

Associated Press

Detectives solve 1968 killing of World War II veteran who became milkman, Florida sheriff says

VERO BEACH, Fla. (AP) — More than five decades after a World War II veteran was slain while working as a milkman in Florida, investigators say they’ve solved the case thanks to two people who came forward after the killer died. Hiram “Ross” Grayam was delivering milk in April 1968 and failed to return home […]

13 hours ago

Sponsored Articles



Here are 5 things Arizona residents need to know about their HVAC system

It's warming back up in the Valley, which means it's time to think about your air conditioning system's preparedness for summer.


Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s 1 way to ensure your family is drinking safe water

Water is maybe one of the most important resources in our lives, and especially if you have kids, you want them to have access to safe water.


Collins Comfort Masters

Avoid a potential emergency and get your home’s heating and furnace safety checked

With the weather getting colder throughout the Valley, the best time to make sure your heating is all up to date is now. 

New book on ‘whistle-stop’ campaign trains describes politics and adventure throughout history