Residents of Franklinton, located on the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad, in 1859 enjoyed a brief but thrilling visit by President James Buchanan (1791-1868). The president and Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson were on their way to Chapel Hill, to participate in the annual commencement of the University of North Carolina.
The president's journey took two days. He left Washington on the afternoon of Monday, May 30, traveling by train to Baltimore. There he and Secretary Thompson boarded the Louisiana, a ship owned by the Baltimore Steam Packet Company.
Enjoying "tastefully decorated" staterooms, the president and his party arrived at Portsmouth, Virginia, at 6 a.m. on May 31.
A large crowd welcomed the president's party at the wharf, and the Pennsylvania Band played a "national air" as Buchanan's train left the train station.
The cars arrived at Weldon, North Carolina, around 10:30. There, Gov. John Ellis, who was accompanied by other dignitaries, warmly welcomed the president.
Buchanan flattered those present by praising the state's conservative nature, love of liberty, and support of the United States Constitution. "God bless the Old North State," he shouted, and the crowd responded with enthusiastic cheers.
Leaving Weldon around noon, a special train bound for Raleigh arrived in Franklinton late in the afternoon.
Incorporated in 1842, the village of fewer than 300 people owed its very existence to the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad.
Among the residents were a doctor, merchants, cabinetmakers, coach makers, carpenters, teachers, shoemakers, seamstresses, a watchmaker/jeweler, a liquor vendor, and a rock mason.
Depot agent Addison Ellis and Benjamin Young, the railroad overseer, no doubt looked forward to the arrival of Franklinton's important guests.
According to The Weekly Raleigh Register, the citizens of Franklinton had appointed a committee to make arrangements for the president's visit, and a large crowd greeted Buchanan and his party.
Charles C. Blacknall, a merchant, welcomed the president with "a very neat and appropriate address, which was responded to by President Buchanan in an eloquent manner."
Jacob Thompson also addressed the citizens, thanking them for their cordial welcome. The dignitaries then adjourned to the hotel operated by James Thomas, where they enjoyed a "sumptuous dinner."
The president's personality likely delighted his hosts. According to Phillips Russell in The Woman Who Rang the Bell: The Story of Cornelia Phillips Spencer, one observer during Buchanan's visit to North Carolina said that "his voice is very pleasant and clear, and his manners very affable. He has a kind word for every one who approaches him, and a hearty kiss for every pretty girl who has one for him ...
President Buchanan is a hale, hearty, active, lively, nice old gentleman, with his eyes wide open all the time, and a way that leaves on all who converse with him a delightful impression of his candor."
Leaving Franklinton after the meal, Buchanan continued his journey. He spent the night in Raleigh and made his way to Chapel Hill on Wednesday, June 1.
Thompson, a graduate of the class of 1831, may have been surprised by the university's growth. With an enrollment of 456, nine professors, and five tutors, it was one of the largest academic institutions in the country.
Buchanan participated in commencement ceremonies, received an honorary degree, and held a reception under the Davie Poplar.
According to Kemp Plummer Battle's History of the University of North Carolina, Buchanan was received "with enthusiastic respect." Citizens of Franklinton, in their own way, had been just as hospitable.
Published in The Franklin Times on June 18, 2015.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College. He can be reached at email@example.com.