Getting to West Point, 1818
R-Day is a West Point tradition, but it doesn’t go back to the Academy’s beginnings. In the early 19th century, it was impractical to expect Cadets to arrive on a given day because transportation was so unreliable. For example, a sloop trip from New York to West Point could be less than a day or several days depending on winds and tides. So, new cadets were generally told to report in a certain month or date range. The complexity of getting to the Academy is clear in the memoirs of early cadets. Today, we’ll trace the journey of John Hazelhurst Boneval Latrobe, a member of the Class of 1822 who never graduated because of the untimely death of his father, the famous architect and engineer Benjamin Henry Latrobe, from yellow fever in 1820.
J.H.B. Latrobe was appointed in December 1817 when he was just fourteen and was told to report in September of 1818. Latrobe lived in Baltimore. What follows is the path he had to take just to get to the Academy.
Day 1: Latrobe departed Baltimore about 8 or 9 a.m. on a steamboat. The first steamboat operating on the Chesapeake was chartered in 1813, so it was still a new and relatively slow technology. Late in the day, Latrobe reached Frenchtown on the Elk River (just south of the current town of Elkton). The distance traveled was probably about 50-60 miles. Today, Frenchtown doesn’t exist except in road names, but it was a major transportation hub in the early 19th century because people and goods could be off-loaded and then transported overland about 16 miles to New Castle on the Delaware River. This negated the need to take a boat all the way around the Delmarva Peninsula. The road between Frenchtown and New Castle was a toll road operated by the New Castle and Frenchtown Turnpike Company. It’s still quite easy today to follow the same route by traveling along Frenchtown Road east from the site of Frenchtown and then driving Rte. 40 and Rte. 273 into New Castle, Delaware. Latrobe spent his first night in New Castle.
Day 2: From New Castle, Latrobe took a steamboat all the way to Trenton, New Jersey, a distance of about 58 miles. From Trenton, a 25-mile stagecoach ride brought the young man to New Brunswick via the busy Trenton and New Brunswick Turnpike, an almost perfectly straight road. Today, Rte. 1 between the two cities follows much of the original roadbed. The Trenton and New Brunswick Turnpike Company had been chartered in 1803 and lasted (struggled) for 99 years. Latrobe slept in New Brunswick.
Day 3: From New Brunswick, it was back aboard a steamboat for a 40-mile journey by way of the Raritan River and then up the coast to Manhattan. While dining in New York, Latrobe was told that because the four steamboats operating on the Hudson were slow, he should book passage on an Albany-bound sloop and by doing so could reach West Point by morning. Alas, the wind died by the time his sloop reached the Tappan Zee and then was hit with what Latrobe called a “northwester” that nearly capsized the boat (which were often overloaded).
Day 4: The next morning the winds were more favorable and the sloop made its way north. In the afternoon, about a full day after leaving New York, they reached West Point. But there was no triumphant docking for young Latrobe. As was common in those days, the sloop captain loaded a crew member and Latrobe (with baggage) into a small boat that was towed beside the vessel. When they passed the dock, the small boat was quickly maneuvered into the dock while the sloop continued on and Latrobe had to jump to safety before the small boat was yanked away. Latrobe wrote, “I jumped accordingly — my trunk was pitched after me —and away went the sloop to make the next tack near Constitution island.”
The landing was at Gee’s Point, the very tip of West Point and now on Flirtation Walk. At a house near the dock, Latrobe hired a man to carry his trunk and escort him to Gridley’s Tavern, a privately operated establishment which was located about where the corners of Bartlett Hall and Taylor Hall meet today. After walking up a steep and “ill-conditioned” road (which is now Flirtation Walk), Latrobe saw the buildings of the Academy, none of which still stand, for the first time. Traveling along the eastern side of the Plain and through the south gate of the property, he arrived at “Grid’s” and was rewarded for his travels by having to sleep in a bed with two other new cadets.
The next morning John H. B. Latrobe reported to the Adjutant and began his cadet career. His journey had taken about 80 hours. Today, the same trip would take about 4 ½.
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Latrobe, John H. B. Reminiscences of West Point from September, 1818, to March, 1882. East Saginaw, Mich.,: Evening News, Printers, 1887.
Brugger, R.J., and E.C. Papenfuse. . Maryland: A New Guide to the Old Line State: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
A Map of the Trenton and New-Brunswick Turnpike-road.  Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/73691816.
Railroad, Pennsylvania. 1891. Ceremonies Upon the Completion of the Monument Erected by the Pennsylvania Railroad Co. at Bordentown, New Jersey: To Mark the First Piece of Track Laid Between New York and Philadelphia, 1831, November 12, 1891: Pennsylvania railroad Company
Scharf, J. Thomas. History of Delaware, 1609-1888, Volume 1. Philadelphia: L.J. Richards $ Co., 1888.