Presidential Visits: Grover Cleveland in 1887

Posted by Scott on February 4, 2020

 (written by Scott Brouwer, Archives staff)


La Crosse Chronicle 8 October 1887


As the first Democrat elected President of the United States since James Buchanan – a mediocre president, at best, even to the most generous historians – in 1856, Grover Cleveland understood the importance of his 1888 re-election campaign.   A three-week goodwill tour of the Midwest and the South via railroad was planned for the fall of 1887.  Industrialist George Pullman offered his personal private railcar, the “Pullman Palace Car”, for the carriage of the president and his wife, Frances, known to most, including her husband, as “Frankie”.

The short stop in La Crosse was roughly halfway through the trip, following stops in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, St. Louis (an extended stay), Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison.  President Cleveland spent the weekend of October 7-9 in Madison at the home of his Postmaster General, William F. Vilas, who had previously been a law professor at the University of Wisconsin. 


Cameron House Hotel, SW corner of 2nd and Vine Streets.  Milwaukee Railroad passenger depot platform is behind the building.  Sign reads "Wisconsin's Second City Welcomes President & Mrs. Cleveland".


This would become the first visit of La Crosse by the sitting President of the United States, but not until the Presidential train reached Madison, however, were La Crosse officials assured that it would even make a stop in La Crosse.  Despite this, an executive welcoming committee that included such dignitaries as Mayor David Austin, Giles Montague, Gideon Hixon, and Joseph Losey had already been making extensive plans.  Notice of the visit confirmation in the local papers brought admonitions of all downtown business owners to “suitably decorate” their buildings and to suspend business until the reception of the president was concluded.  Every available steamboat was expected to be “in sight [at the end of] Main Street to make a display of the commercial marine of the Upper Mississippi.”


Photo taken from current State Bank building at 4th and Main Streets, looking west.  Parade turned north from here.  Building on left side of the photo is the Pomeroy Opera House that burned in 1897.  


Granted a mere 25 minutes, the committees in charge of celebrating the visit planned a quick downtown parade.  It departed from the Milwaukee Railroad downtown passenger depot at the Cameron House hotel, on the SW corner of Vine and 2nd Streets.  

Mayor Austin and Gideon Hixon joined President Cleveland and his wife Frankie in an open-air horse-drawn carriage for the parade around downtown.  It was reported that Mrs. Cleveland said “we have seen nothing prettier than this.”  It was also reported that Mayor Austin commented to President Cleveland: “This is better than handshaking and speechmaking, is it not, Mr. President?” and the President replied “Infinitely. This is a rest. We enjoy and will remember it.”  Along with thousands of La Crosse citizens, delegations from surrounding communities such as Onalaska, Bangor, Galesville, Trempealeau, Prairie du Chien, West Salem, Alma, Viroqua, and Hokah (MN) were noted as well.



Though not noted in newspaper reports of the event, the parade must have stopped long enough for Mrs. Cleveland to quickly take a photo, prints of which were given away to Trade Palace customers. Advertisement from La Crosse Republic and Leader 11 October 1887. 


President Cleveland’s goodwill tour continued through St. Paul, Minneapolis, Omaha, Kansas City, Memphis, Nashville, Atlanta, and Montgomery (AL).  From there, it made a relatively quick return to Washington D.C., only slowly rolling through other major cities to allow citizens a quick view of the President passing through.  That La Crosse was granted a formal visit on this tour of major cities was seen as a quite an achievement for the 31-year-old city. 


La Crosse Chronicle 10 October 1887

President Cleveland was defeated in his 1888 re-election bid by Benjamin Harrison, but would be elected again in 1892, becoming the only president to be elected to two non-consecutive terms.  To see more photos or to read the extensive newspaper coverage of President Cleveland’s visit, please stop in to the La Crosse Public Library Archives.