Rallies Along The Rails
Origin of the Whistlestop Campaign
In 1900, Theodore Roosevelt was the first candidate to embark on a succession of high-energy, rapid-fire trackside rallies that came to be known as whistlestop campaigns. The practice fundamentally changed the way presidential candidates interact with the electorate.
The term ‘whistlestop’ was borrowed from the railroads’ practice of signaling stops at small, occasionally used railway stations. Incoming trains announced their approach with a blast of the steam whistle. If passengers, mail, or freight were waiting to be picked up, the depot master raised a tower signal alerting the engineer to stop. If no stop was necessary, a different signal told the engineer he could pass on through. Similarly, as candidates for president criss-crossed the country by train, the engineer whistled his approach to the station, the candidate addressed crowds from the rear platform of a private railcar, and the train traveled on to the next town. The entire stop might last only ten to 20 minutes.
Before the whistlestop, many presidential candidates avoided travel altogether, choosing to receive visitors in their home over the proverbial chicken dinner or to deliver speeches from their front porch. In 1888, Benjamin Harrison campaigned exclusively from his residence in Indianapolis. In 1896, William McKinley’s orations from his front porch in Canton, Ohio, drew crowds that aggregated some 700,000 over the duration of the campaign. This form of low-key persuasion was considered dignified, and it was left to surrogates to fan out around the country spreading the candidate’s message.
The interaction between candidates and the electorate has continued to evolve through the decades with the advent of large rallies, televised debates, and social media messaging. Nevertheless, since the first whistlestop campaign in 1900, every U.S. president except Calvin Coolidge and Donald Trump has used the private railcar tour to connect with voters in America’s heartland. The allure and romance of the legendary whistlestop continues to entice presidential candidates to hold rallies along the rails.