Reminisce: When presidents stopped in Lima

In late October 1960, during the final weeks of the heated and historic presidential race between Republican Richard M. Nixon and Democrat John F. Kennedy, it appeared likely Lima would land visits from both candidates.

“Local party leaders cannot recall any past presidential campaign in which both candidates have visited Lima in the same year,” the Lima Citizen wrote Oct. 23, 1960. “Nor can they recall when a candidate made more than a train platform talk.”

Both Nixon and Kennedy were scheduled to give speeches from a platform in the southwest corner of the Public Square.

Ultimately, however, it didn’t happen. Lima didn’t land Kennedy because, according to his campaign, the candidate’s plane couldn’t safely land at the Lima Airport, which was located on Baty Road. Ohio’s Democratic chairman told the Citizen the planes used by the campaign were “too large to land on the Lima Airport runways.”

Nixon took the train. Although Lima may have come up short in runways, it had been plenty of rails.

“The Vice President drew the largest political rally crowd in Lima history, despite overcast skies and chilly weather, Police Chief Donald F. Miller said,” the Citizen reported Oct. 27, 1960, the day after Nixon’s visit. The crowd, estimated at more than 50,000 people in the Square and along the route from the B&O tracks on East North Street, prompted the state Republican chairman “to flatly predict” that Nixon would win the state’s 25 electoral votes in the November 8 election.

Nixon did win Ohio, but Kennedy won the presidency by a narrow margin, becoming the nation’s first Roman Catholic chief executive. Nixon returned eight years later during his successful 1968 campaign, speaking to “more than 12,000 chilled but cheering persons” in the Public Square, The Lima News wrote of the Oct. 22, 1968, campaign stop.

“Leaden skies, a clammy threat of rain and chilly temperatures creeping in with the dusk failed to muffle enthusiasm of Nixon’s audience. But they heard the man making a comeback from political oblivion speak for only half the time scheduled for the Lima rally,” The Lima News noted, explaining that 15 minutes were chopped from the Lima stop on Nixon’s nine-city rail-borne Ohio campaign because he was running late. “Although he arrived at the Erie-Lackawanna station on South Main at 5 o’clock, the candidate was back on his train and politicking northward by 6,” the newspaper wrote.

Presidents and future presidents had been whisked through Lima for as long as the city had railroads, occasionally stopping to deliver a talk from the rear platform of the train, or simply reaching out to shake hands with well-wishers.

Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes, a native of Delaware, Ohio, delivered an impromptu speech at the French House, a hotel that stood at the junction of two of Lima’s railroads, in September 1879 after stopping for dinner. In May 1901, President William McKinley, a Republican from Niles, mingled briefly with a crowd when his train stopped in Lima on the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago railroad.

By 1907, the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago was the Pennsylvania Railroad, and Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House. On Sept. 30 of that year, Roosevelt passed through Lima on his way to Iowa from Canton, where he had attended the unveiling of a memorial to McKinley, who had been assassinated in September 1901. “President Roosevelt was given an enthusiastic ovation by Lima people when his special train pulled into the city over the Pennsylvania Railroad at 7:40 o’clock last evening,”

Lima’s Times-Democrat wrote. “He evidently appreciated the informal but patriotic reception too for he stepped upon the rear platform of the third and last car in his train and delivered a brief but characteristic address to the cheering crowd.”

Roosevelt returned to Lima on May 16, 1912, seeking to return to the presidency after he’d relinquished the office in 1908 to his favored successor, William Howard Taft. In the intervening years, Roosevelt had become disenchanted with Taft. “Ten thousand men, women and children, saw or heard him and cheered him, during the thirty minutes he tarried in this city. Three thousand heard or tried to hear him deliver a twenty-minute address in Memorial Hall,” the Allen County Republican-Gazette wrote May 17, 1912.

Two days after Roosevelt departed on the Pennsylvania, Taft arrived on the same railroad for a speech at Memorial Hall, which, The Lima News wrote May 18, 1912, “was thrown open at 11 o’clock this morning and so serious was the crowd to get seats within hearing distance they missed the noon-day meal and sat seriously two hours awaiting the arrival of the president.”

Taft won the Republican nomination in June, while Roosevelt bolted the party to become the standard-bearer for the Progressive Party. Roosevelt passed through Lima on Oct. 21, 1912, after being shot and wounded in Milwaukee. About 200 people gathered at the Main Street crossing of the Pennsylvania to view Roosevelt’s eastbound train, politely stifling a cheer to allow Roosevelt to rest. Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the election in November.

During his 1916 re-election campaign, Wilson passed through Lima, “waved a greeting” and “smiled at the crowd at the Pennsylvania railway station and sped on to Chicago,” the Lima Republican-Gazette wrote Oct. 5, 1916. In October 1932, Republican President Herbert Hoover was greeted by up to 15,000 people at the Main Street crossing of the Pennsylvania. “The crowd was so immense and cheering, though not loud, so insistent that the president did not make a speech as he intended,” The Lima News reported Oct. 5, 1932. “’I do not have to make a speech,’ he said, as he smiled at the crowd. ‘There is enough enthusiasm here without any speech from me.’”

Twelve years later, during World War II, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed through Lima on the Pennsylvania but “did not attempt to speak to the large crowd which had gathered on a few hours’ notice to get a glimpse of their nation’s chief executive,” The Lima News reported Oct. 28, 1944. “However, his train moved through Lima at a snail’s pace so that the thousands of citizens got a good look at him.”

President Harry Truman, who, in the words of The Lima News, had made a “slow-down” visit to Lima on June 4, 1948, during which his train traveled through the Lima on the Pennsylvania at a snail’s pace while he waved from the back platform, stopped for 15 minutes on Oct. 11, 1948, while the Democrat gave a brief address from the back platform at the B&O station.

More recent presidents have arrived in Lima by air or motorcade, although in October 1984 Republican Ronald Reagan campaigning for re-election did deliver a 20-minute speech from a special campaign train on the Chessie System tracks, disembarking long enough to sign a Lima mural. Four years earlier, Reagan had flown into the Allen County Airport before traveling downtown for a rally. Republican President Gerald Ford arrived at the Lima Mall parking lot by motorcade in 1976 to deliver a 40-minute speech.

Republican President George H.W. Bush, the only president to spend the night in Lima, arrived by helicopter October 27, 1992, and delivered a brief speech at the airport the next day before departing. On April 24, 2003, President George W. Bush flew by helicopter directly on to the grounds of the Lima Army Tank Plant, where he delivered a speech. In August 2004, he spoke at the new Lima Senior High School during a bus whistlestop tour down state Route 65.

On Aug. 30, 2008, Democrat presidential nominee Barack Obama attended services at St. Luke’s Lutheran between campaign stops in Dublin and Toledo. As president, Obama spoke at the Lima Senior gymnasium on Nov. 2, 2012, after flying into the Allen County Airport. Former Republican President Donald Trump arrived at the Allen County Airport aboard Air Force One for a speech at General Dynamics in March 2019.