How James A. Garfield Traveled through Maine in 1878

Two years before he would successfully run for president, my great-great grandfather, James A. Garfield, came to Maine to campaign for Republican candidates prior to the mid-term elections of 1878.

Until last week, I never knew that he ever set foot in Maine, let alone in Bangor, during his too-short life, tragically cut short by an assassin’s bullet and an incompetent doctor two months before his 50th birthday. But local historian Richard Shaw pointed me to a house on Broadway near its intersection with Cumberland Street, where the future president was a guest at a reception during what was likely his only visit to the city.

Travel was different in those days. The first Model T would not roll off Henry Ford’s assembly line for another thirty years. There were no interstate highways, of course, and few bridges across the rivers that divide Maine’s coast. And yet Congressman Garfield gave speeches in Portland, Lewiston, Damariscotta, Rockland, Camden and Belfast before arriving in Bangor on September 7, where he spoke at Norumbega Hall and stayed at the home of former Vice President Hannibal Hamlin.

All of this is documented in his diaries, the pertinent parts of which were shared with me by Todd Arrington, site manager at the James A. Garfield Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio, just east of Cleveland and a few miles south of Lake Erie. It was here that the Congressman and future President lived with his wife Lucretia and their five surviving children until moving into the White House in 1881.

Congressman Garfield left Mentor on the afternoon of Thursday, August 29, 1878, accompanied by his oldest son Harry (my great-grandfather), then 16 years old. They traveled by horse-drawn buggy to the nearby town of Plainesville, where the Congressman boarded a train at 3:36 p.m.

The train traveled along much the same route plied by Amtrak today, through Albany and western Massachusetts to Boston, where Garfield changed trains for Maine. By the evening of Friday the 30th, he was in Portland. The trip did not take appreciably more time than a similar train trip does now.

Garfield spent several days in southern Maine, traveling by local train to give speeches in Lewiston and Biddeford and to swim in the surf at Old Orchard Beach. On Wednesday, September 4, he took a train to Damariscotta, gave another speech, spent the night at a hotel, and departed by train the next morning for Rockland.

Apparently he was much in demand as a speaker, a rising star in the Republican Party. He was driven overland via horse-drawn carriage to Camden and then Belfast, delivering speeches in both places before boarding a steamship that took him up the river to Bangor on the morning of Saturday, September 7.

According to Cipperly Good, collections manager at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, a daily steamship ran between Rockland and Bangor, with stops in Camden, Northport, Belfast, and Searsport. “That’s how you moved around the coast in those days, between the major ports,” she said. A 1905 schedule shows a 7:30 departure from Belfast and an 11 a.m. arrival in Bangor, and Good suggested that the schedule in 1878 was probably similar. A typical steamer such as the Katahdin or the Cambridge would hold about 100 passengers, and make one trip each day in each direction.

Congressman Garfield remained in Bangor until Monday morning, when he boarded a train for Augusta. He arrived home in Ohio on Thursday morning, the 12th, having been away just short of two weeks.

What strikes me about my great-great grandfather’s journey is that the automobile giveth, and the automobile taketh away. One can drive from Cleveland to Bangor in one long day, and from Rockland to Bangor in under two hours. The Concord Coach bus covers the same route as the old steamships, though still only once or twice a day, depending on the season, and with far fewer passengers.

Still, wouldn’t it be grand to take a passenger ferry up the Penobscot, or to arrive home in Bangor by train? Even 138 years ago, travelers had more options than they do today. Bangor was a hub for rail and steamboat routes, according to Matt Bishop, curator and operations manager at the Bangor Historical Society. “Lots was going on back then,” he said.

Perhaps, as we move from the Late Automobile Age to whatever comes next, people will remember that there’s more than one way to get there from here.


Hank Garfield

About Hank Garfield

Hank's writing has appeared in San Diego Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Downeast, Bangor Metro, and elsewhere. He is the author of five published novels, and is now seeking a publisher for his recently-completed novel, A Sprauling Family Saga.