William Seward Webb’s company began building the Adirondack & St. Lawrence Railroad in the spring of 1891. A year later, the line had not been completed when Webb made a promise to President Benjamin Harrison he was not sure he could fulfill. He promised the President and First Lady, Caroline Scott Harrison, they could ride his train to the Loon Lake House so she could spend the summer there to recover her health.
Near the end of Harrison’s term in 1892, Caroline’s tubercular condition worsened. The Harrisons and her physician considered a stay for her in the North Woods in a desperate move to improve her prospects. They contacted Ferd Chase of the Loon Lake House who offered a cottage for the summer. Learning this, Webb offered his assistance since Caroline’s condition limited her ability to withstand stage travel. He promised a ride by rail for most of the distance but Mrs. Harrison’s condition would determine the timing of the trip.
Webb was “greatly worried” that if his line to Loon Lake was not completed in time, a long stage ride to the hotel could prove fatal for Caroline Harrison. On Wednesday morning, July 6, the day prior to the Harrisons’ planned arrival, Webb’s railroad engineer William N. Roberts received a telegram from his boss about the railroad’s status. The President’s train was to arrive the next day. Roberts informed Dr. Webb that the rails on the incomplete line had not reached Loon Lake Station. “Finish that line at any cost,” Webb wired.
The Albany Express reported, “Engineer Roberts ordered every available man on the entire line to work on the unfinished stretch of road. He had a carload of provisions sent to the scene. Scores of naphtha lamps were utilized and hundreds of men worked all night that the road might be completed to save Mrs. Benjamin Harrison pain.
“The men worked liked Trojans, not only the ordinary laborers, but officials of the road, turned in and shoveled, tamped and hammered until daylight. A great shout went out as the last spike was driven to bind the steel rails in position in front of the Loon Lake Station.
“Then the workmen built a platform and covered it with carpet for the President’s party to step from the cars to the four-horse coach of the Loon Lake House, to which a drive of two or three miles took them.”
The Presidential party left Washington shortly after 2 pm on July 6 on a special Pennsylvania Railway train. It arrived at Troy at 1:30 am where it was switched to the Central Vermont tracks. The train arrived at Malone at 10:30 am, and station managers switched the cars to the new Adirondack and St. Lawrence tracks. They then quickly coupled a brand new engine to the special train’s cars and it left, only 15 minutes after it had arrived. This reportedly became the first train run over that segment of the Adirondack & St. Lawrence it arrived at Loon Lake Station at 1 pm. Despite the work of laying the track, Ferd Chase’s coach could only get within a hundred yards of the train. Benjamin Harrison and her doctor carried Caroline to her seat.
Caroline’s felt well enough to join those on a special Wagner car for one of the first trips over the entire Adirondack & St. Lawrence line, just a few days before the railroad opened to the public. Throughout the summer, national papers reported frequently on Caroline’s condition, sometimes highlighting even the slightest indication of improvement.
Though in the midst of a election campaign against Grover Cleveland, Harrison’s managers assigned most of his speeches throughout the summer to political surrogates. It was said that out of respect for the Harrisons, Cleveland limited his personal campaigning. The President’s appearances away from Caroline’s bedside were few, but reported in detail. Cleveland ultimately won the election.
Despite a summer of sometimes worsened illness, Caroline Harrison sought to return to the White House. On September 13th, her condition worsened to such an extent that her doctor brought Dr. E. L. Trudeau from Saranac Lake by special train and a specialist from New York, Dr. F. E. Dougherty, for consultation. Twice that summer Caroline had fluid and pressure taken from her lungs and this was tried again.
On September 20, Caroline was placed in a long, covered wagon specially adapted to receive her cot and buffered for the two-mile trip over the rough mountain road to the station. A month after arrving back in Washington, Caroline died.
According to the Town of Franklin website, the cottage occupied by the Harrisons that summer is the President’s Cottage. Its owners currently rent it as the Presidents House. After the Harrisons, Presidents Grover Cleveland (1895) and William McKinley (1897-1901) used it as summer White Houses. Three years after Caroline’s death, Harrison returned to the Adirondacks and spent the summer of 1895 on the Fulton Chain near Old Forge.
Illustrations: William Seward Webb from E.R. Wallace’s 1894 Guide to the Adirondacks; Caroline Harrison (Library of Congress); and Loon Lake House and Cottage from the New York Press, Sept. 20, 1892.