Presidential visits to Cape Cod and the Islands
From Grant to Obama, Presidents have been traveling to the region since the 1870s
When the President of the United States goes on vacation, it’s big news. This past summer President Barack Obama put Martha’s Vineyard in the national spotlight once again when he and his family arrived for their seventh summer getaway on the island. But Obama is hardly the first Oval Office holder to visit. As it turns out, the President has been traveling a well-trod path between Washington and the sandy shores of Cape Cod and the Islands.
The first sitting U.S. president to visit Cape Cod was Ulysses S. Grant, who occupied the White House from 1869 to 1877. Grant may also hold the distinction of having visited more sites on the Cape than any of his future counterparts. On August 27, 1874, Grant arrived on Martha’s Vineyard in late afternoon on the steamship River Queen and was taken with his party by horse-drawn carriage to the Methodist Campground at Oak Bluffs. “So great was the press, notwithstanding the five or six thousand who were congregated in and about the grandstand, that there was difficulty in extracting the party from the cars,” noted the next day’s Martha’s Vineyard Times.
The following day, the president, his wife, and several other dignitaries took the River Queen to Hyannis, stopping briefly in Nantucket. From Hyannis he embarked on a whirlwind train tour that included stops in Yarmouth, South Dennis, South Wellfleet, Harwich, Provincetown, Barnstable, and Sandwich. The President received an “Enthusiastic Reception Everywhere,” according to a headline in the Sept. 1, 1874, Barnstable Patriot. Despite the fact that it was nearly 9 p.m. by the time the presidential party reached Sandwich, “a vast assembly greeted the distinguished visitors,” the newspaper stated. “Bands were in attendance, bonfires were kindled, and quite a jollification was indulged in.” From Sandwich the train moved on to Woods Hole, where the president and his party boarded the River Queen to return to the Vineyard.
Lured by the promise of sea air and good fishing, Grover Cleveland, the only U.S. president to serve non-consecutive terms, bought a summer home in Bourne in 1890, which he named Gray Gables. The Cleveland family and friends received news of his renomination in June 1892 via a telegraph line installed in the home, according to the Bourne Historical Society. Shortly after, the Old Colony Railroad erected a train depot at the site. Two of the five Cleveland children were born at Gray Gables.
“Mr. Cleveland was . . . seemingly more interested in his growing family and his fishing than in warring politicians,” wrote M.E. Hennessy in the October 23, 1933, Boston Daily Globe, recalling the conversations the ex-president had with a small group of reporters on the veranda of Gray Gables in 1892. “He lived the simple life, lounged about in old clothes, and appeared delighted that he had found a spot where he could get complete rest and recreation, without much publicity, and where he could restrict his callers to those whom he liked.”
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