Taft's Visit - Tillman Memoirs

Memoirs of Captain Edwin H Tillman, steamship Oleander,
President Taft's boat on the journey from St. Louis to New Orleans.
On Sept.27, 1909, I was directed to prepare the Lighthouse Tender Oleander and have her in St. Louis by Oct. 25. to take the President (Taft) from there to New Orleans. I planned the trip and submitted it to the Board, which made a number of changes. Also, informed me that I was to have complete charge of the fleet of steamers that would accompany the Oleander and would have authority to fine any masters who did not obey the rules, a copy of which was furnished each Master. Several Torpedo Destroyers were sent up the river to escort the Oleander, but they made so much smoke that it embarrassed the Merchant boats so greatly that I had to order them to proceed far ahead and to far ahead and to join the fleet at Nine Mile Point (about nine miles above New Orleans). Oct. 25, 1909, at 5 PM the president and party, Secretaries Nagle, Dickerson, Hitchcock, and his Doctor Richardson, and his Aid Major Butt, came on board and immediately the Oleander made signal for the fleet to start and lead the way down the river.

Twelve boats followed the Oleander in a designated order. It was estimated that they carried over five thousand passengers, among them one hundred and fifty Congressmen. The first stop was made at Cape Girardeau, then Cairo, Hickman and Memphis.

Before reaching Memphis I had to slow down the Oleander as some of the boats could not keep up. By this act we were late arriving at Memphis. There I interviewed the President and told him that if the Oleander had to run slowly to allow the boats to keep up, I could not land him at the time set (8 AM Oct. 30) and that I suggested that those boats which could not keep up be directed not to stop at every place we did and showed him the order I had already prepared which he approved. This order was that boats which could not keep up should not stop but should proceed down the river to Nine Mile Point and to join the Oleander upon her arrival there.

However, as we stopped at Helena, Vicksburg, Natchez, and Baton Rouge, the President made a speech at each place. Twice he had to be put on other vessels to dine. Much time was lost by having to stop in midstream to put him on board and then late at night to take him back on the Oleander. I told the president that with such delays we could not arrive at New Orleans at the hour set. Upon arrival at Nine Mile Point I got all the fleet together and we went in to the harbor in fine order and landed at noon. The president immediately left the vessel.

After his return to Washington he wrote me a letter expressing his appreciation of the work done by me, of the care, consideration and watchfulness I had shown. However, I think he had very little idea of all I did and had to contend with. I was on deck most of the time, night and day.

I was informed by his Secretary that there would be five in the Presidents party, but not that he would have detectives, newspaper reporters and others to be taken on board at different points along the river. Upon arrival at New Orleans I had on board besides the crew twenty-four persons. My officers had to give up their rooms and extra births prepared. Twenty-four persons had to be feed instead of the six I was told to prepare for.

Everyone seemed to enjoy the trip except myself. I never had a busier time and surely was glad when it was over. A few incidents that were amusing to me at Saint Louis when I called at the Club to report to the President, Major Butt received me and said be would receive my report. I told him my orders were to report to the President and I wished to do so, and did.

The Major came on in advance of the President to inspect the Oleander. I showed him through the vessel, and as we went through my cabin, he said I will take this room. I said no, that is Secretary Dickinson's. The next he selected I said that is for Secretary Hitchcock, and the next is Secretary Nagle's. I will give you a room on the upper deck. On one occasion he drew his sword and stopped one of my crew as he was coming up the steps. I told him I would look after the crew.

On another occasion as we were steaming down the river, there was a lot of steam whistles on shore and the Major came to me and said that the President wished all that noise stopped. I said "how in h___ can I stop it", but he did not tell me. Upon arriving at Nine Mile Point, the Destroyers, that I had sent there, fired a twenty-one gun salute. I reported the fact to the President (as it was my duty to do so). His reply was, " I heard all that darn noise", but he said nothing when the Battle ships saluted his flag upon arrival at New Orleans. I think that with going ashore and making speeches, sometimes near mid-night, had tired him and he was probably glad when it was over. Once when the President was standing on the upper deck and I was a short distance from him, a newspaper man with his camera asked me to stand over nearer to the President so he could take a snap shot of the President and myself. I said no, not without his consent. He stepped over and spoke to the President and I heard the latter's reply, " Yes, let him get all the glory out of it he can." I never saw the Picture until a friend called my attention to in a magazine published in 1931, and if I ever got any glory out of the incident, I have never realized it.
Provided by Greg Stilwell, a relative of Capt. Tillman - August 2003.