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Chapter 185: Petersburg Agenda

January 10, 2023
Chevy Chase, Maryland

In 2023, if you think about it, it’s not a big deal planning a trip of about 1,000 miles, compared to travel in Emmett’s day. We have several options, depending on affordability and/or travel time requirements. If a trip is more than six hours, say, most of us would probably opt to purchase a plane ticket to travel from Pensacola to Baltimore, and boom, we’re there in about three hours.

I drove my car to Pensacola for my first research trip in 2014, stopping in Montgomery, Alabama on the way down, but drove back home in one day. Fuel cost was about the same as a plane ticket to do that.

If you’re like me (someone who actually likes a long road trip), it’s drivable in one day, though I don’t recommend it to everyone. And, depending on your schedule (and vehicle), driving can be more expensive than flying.

A few benefits of driving: I have control over what I want to see/where I want to go, and I can take as many carry-ons as I want without paying for it. Also, I’ve long had claustrophobia which has only gotten worse during Covid (since I worked primarily from home for more than two years), so no worries about cramped seats, racing madly through a huge airport to catch a connection, et cetera.

A few downsides of driving: The cost to drive to Pensacola and back was more than a plane ticket; also, the cost of wear and tear on a car with almost 80,000 miles had to be considered (but we live in a mostly walkable community, and our kids took public school buses and transportation everywhere. Our car is idle in the driveway five out of seven days a week).

I didn’t overlook traveling to Pensacola via Amtrak, but when I priced a train ticket in 2014, it was more than plane ticket, and, I would have had to rent a car upon arrival. Also, even though the mileage wasn’t that different between driving and the train, I felt that if I was going to make the trip on the ground, it was better to come and go as I pleased in my own car.

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Source: The Pensacola Journal, 1913 via ChroniclingAmerica.gov

My point about comparative travel options is that I’ve been thinking about how Emmett had, basically, only one option to get from Pensacola to Baltimore in 1912, because he had specific places to be on specific dates. His transportation options were: Rail, horse-and-buggy, automobile. Autos were not widely used for 1,000 mile trips in 1912 (lack of regular services along the way, plus mostly unpaved roads). Rail was the obvious choice.

I pieced together the itinerary for Emmett’s trip to Petersburg and Baltimore in June, 1912, from contemporary sources about Emmett and the Florida delegation, as well as available train schedules and the like.

On June 19, Emmett, who was an alternate delegate to the Democratic National Convention left Pensacola on the L&N Railroad, along with two other delegates, Benjamin S. Williams (a prominent local insurance agent and businessman) and Thomas F. (Tom) West of Milton, Florida, a lawyer, state senator, and eventual State Attorney General.

Most likely, Williams and West continued on to Baltimore to meet up with the rest of the Florida delegation, and did not attend the window dedication with Emmett. These two were important in Florida politics, and had they attended the dedication, their names would have appeared in the newspaper coverage of the unveiling.

Emmett, Williams and West took the L&N Railroad originating in Pensacola, then to Atlanta; once there, they switched to the Seaboard Air Line Railroad. Emmett remained on the SAL train until Petersburg.

Overview of the Seaboard Air Line and connections that Emmett took en route to Petersburg, and ultimately to Baltimore. Source: Seaboard Air Line Railroad map from the Library of Congress.

If you take a look at the map of the railroads serving Florida and the Atlantic states, you’ll notice there are a LOT of stops along the way. I’m not certain if his train stopped at every one of the stations along the route, but this was, minimally, an 18-hour train trip. The map below shows a rather daunting number of stops. Emmett, Williams, and West probably (hopefully) had sleeper accommodations, in addition to the convention reading material to busy themselves during the trip.

This is the same map as above, but with my annotations. The red arrow at the bottom left is Pensacola. The blue box hovering over Georgia and South Carolina indicates the Seaboard Air Line Railroad lines. The red arrow at the top right is Petersburg, and the blue arrow above that highlights the tiny notation of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad line.

Emmett disembarked from the Seaboard Air Line train at Petersburg; Williams and West continued to D.C., then Baltimore.

Source: Petersburg Daily Progress, June 21, 1912.

The Florida window unveiling took place at 4:30 pm on Monday, June 24, 1912. There’s a notation that Emmett gave a beautiful and moving speech, but unfortunately, my sources at the Old Blandford Church archive told me there is neither a copy of that speech in their archives, nor notes of what was said in the documents related to the Florida window unveiling. All we have (to date) are secondary reports that the speech was received positively.

(I visited the Old Blandford Church in 2017 and wrote about the experience. Click here for that article.)

On the right is the writeup in the Petersburg Daily Progress, dated June 21, 1912, about the upcoming presentation featuring Emmett Wilson.

The program for the event notes that Emmett is a Congressman in the third paragraph, and a Senator in the fifth. (Note: Lots of presumption here, though Florida was essentially a one-party state in 1912; Emmett still had to win the general election in November.)

Also, there’s a typo: Senator Faxwell instead of Maxwell (referring to Emmett’s grandfather, Augustus Emmett Maxwell. Maxwell was the great grandfather of Miss Julia Maxwell, who was tasked with the unveiling of the Florida window during the presentation.

The program probably lasted for about an hour and a half; Emmett probably stayed for the entire event, since it wouldn’t look good to give the florid speech, then flee for where he really wanted to be: In Baltimore, with all the political action.

Most every description of Emmett by contemporary media at this point shows a disciplined, quiet, patient young man biding his time — but knowing Emmett was a full-blown alcoholic in 1912, knowing that he was a political neophyte thrown into the deep water of national politics at 29 years of age, knowing that his contemporaries often described him as ‘waspish’ under the surface when under pressure — he must have been anxious! Impatient! Things were already hopping in Baltimore. According to The Pensacola Journal for Tuesday, June 25: “The Florida delegation met at 7 pm tonight (Monday, June 24) and organized by the election of officers and in addition the delegation adopted a motion that the chairman should cast the vote of the entire delegation for Oscar Underwood as long as his name is before the convention….” Our Emmett did not want to miss a thing; alas, he probably missed this meeting.

Yes, Emmett was schooled by his brothers, colleagues, and certainly Frank Mayes, to maintain equilibrium at all times in public, but knowing that took effort on Emmett’s part. (Did it smell on him, the surreptitiously sipped whiskey he used to calm himself so that he could follow through as directed and expected by Frank Mayes?)

I’m sure Mayes gave Emmett specific directions on what to do on his own in Petersburg, to stay out of trouble, to make a good showing for the Ladies’ Memorial Association and the subsequent newspaper writeup. Mayes believed since this was a brief detour, Emmett would be fine on his own for several hours.

Emmett would have to keep his wits about him to get to Baltimore anyway, because his schedule was tight on the 24th. The 1912 Democratic National Convention opened at noon June 25, at the Fifth Regiment Armory.

Once Emmett was finished at the Old Blandford Church, he had to move quickly . According the timetable, he likely took the electric rail from Petersburg at 6:35 to Richmond, where he next boarded the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad (RFP) to D.C.

Once Emmett made it to Washington D.C.’s Union Station, he would hop onto the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad line to Baltimore. The Baltimore Pennsylvania Station was close to the Hotel Caswell (located at the corner of Hanover and Baltimore Streets), where the Florida delegation stayed until July 2.

The delegates from Florida. Source: 1912 Democratic National Committee program, via the University of California archives.

Once Emmett eventually arrived in Baltimore, even if it was a late night arrival, I doubt he got much sleep on June 24. Baltimore was bursting at the seams with convention-goers, people were out and about at all hours, and the hotels were completely full.

Everything about it was exciting, new, different, and full of promise for the youngest Congressman-elect in the United States. The next several days would be unforgettable for Emmett.

Categories: Congressman Florida History

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jsmith532

Professor,
Communication, Arts, and the Humanities
The University of Maryland Global Campus

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