A crowd watches the President's train arrives at the a house by the shore.

“The President is Somewhat Restless…”: Seashore

By Lenore Barbian and Jeffrey S. Reznick

As President Garfield endured all the agonies the wound and its treatment brought him, he longed to go to the seashore. Ever since he was a boy, Garfield had had a deep fascination with sailing, the sea, and all things nautical.  Now he wished to visit the seashore one last time.  Bliss, however, was adamant that the trip was much too strenuous for the President in his current condition.  Although Bliss would later claim it was his desire to remove Garfield from the oppressive heat of the Washington summer that lead him to relent, Garfield actually had to invoke his Presidential authority and on September 5th demand that preparation for such a trip be started immediately.

TO THE SEASHORE

Six people stand around thr president in a bed supported by folded mattresses
The interior of the car, with the bed on which the President was carried, Sept. 6, 1881
Courtesy Library of Congress #93513235

A specially equipped train had already been outfitted for Garfield weeks before in order to take the President wherever and whenever needed.  Now, at 2:00 A.M. on September 6th, it pulled into the Baltimore and Ohio Depot.  The principle concerns for the President were the motion of the train and the dust that he would be exposed to during the trip.  Preparations had been undertaken to minimize both.  The train engine would use only anthracite coal, a clean burning fuel.  Heavy curtains were hung on the interior of his car and gauze wrapped around the exterior in order to reduce the amount dust.  A bed with strong springs was placed in the car in an attempt to reduce the bumping and jostling of the train on its tracks.  Other enhancements were also put into place.  Ice was brought into the car to help cool it, and a false ceiling was installed to aid air circulation.

Bliss’s preparations for the trip were a marvel of careful thought and planning.  All other trains along the route would be brought to a standstill until the President’s train passed so as not to further disturb Garfield.  Homes along the route were identified as possible rest stations if the President needed to stop.  A line of railroad track was specially laid to bring his train directly to the door of Franklyn Cottage where he would be staying.

As the President made his journey to Elberon, New Jersey, the American people lined the tracks.  They stood in silence or quietly weeping.  So concerned were the American people for their President that when it appeared that the newly laid track would fail in bringing the President to the door of his residence, they stepped forward to help.  The problem was that Franklyn Cottage stood atop a hill, and the engine of the train simply lacked the power to make the final ascent.  From the crowds that lined the tracks, hundreds of men stepped forward and pushed the train cars up the incline.

Four Newspaper Illustrations show men buidling the railway, Garfield's bed on the train, people greeting the train, and the train arriving at the house by the shore.
New Jersey—The removal of President Garfield, with his physicians and attendants, from the White House to the Franklyn cottage, at Elberon by the sea, September 6th
Courtesy Library of Congress #95509688

Once installed in his room with a view of the ocean, Garfield did seem to rally somewhat and was even strong enough to sit up to look out at the coastline.  Although always the model patient who had endured incredible suffering without complaint and who had always remained cheerful and grateful to those who cared for him, Garfield’s spirits were raised by the change of venue.   He was delighted to be near the shore.

This post is one of a series reenacting the official bulletins released to the public by the physicians to President Garfield during his illness after the shooting on July 2, 1881.

 Lenore Barbian, PhD, is Associate Professor and Anthropology Program Director at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. She is author of numerous articles, including “Remains of War: Walt Whitman, Civil War Soldiers, and the Legacy of Medical Collections”, co-authored with Jeff Reznick and Paul Sledzik, which received the 2013 best article award from the Archivists and Librarians in the History of the Health Sciences (ALHHS).  Jeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, is Chief of NLM’s History of Medicine Division and author of two books and numerous articles on the cultural history of war and medicine.

3 comments

  1. Thank you for this well-written description of President Garfield’s move to the seashore. However, he never saw the ocean as a boy — only read about it due to his great interest in the sea, ships, and pirates. He was never more than 20 miles from his log home in Orange Township, Cuyahoga County, Ohio as a youth.

    1. Thank you for your comment! We regrettably misstated Garfield’s association with the sea. He did long for the ocean as boy — a longing which lead him to leave home for Cleveland at age sixteen in the hopes of sailing on the Great Lakes. It was not until he was an adult that Garfield was able to visit the seashore. We apologize for this mistake.

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