Go West Young Men! And Laundry Girls too!
One of the most significant mass movements in West Point history has to be the trip to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904, more commonly known as the St. Louis World’s Fair. In late May of 1904, just after exams but before graduation exercises, nearly the entire Corps headed westward to encamp on the Exposition’s fairgrounds for about 10 days.
This move was a logistical wonder. Four trains were chartered, leaving on two separate days. On the first day (Friday 27 May), the trains consisted of cavalry soldiers, 47 horses, 13 mules, several laundry girls, civilian employees, two mounted guns, and eleven cars full of baggage. The next day, May 28th, the trains carried 407 cadets, the Band, and officers and their wives.
The route taken was complex. First, the trains headed to Buffalo along tracks controlled by the New York Central Railroad. Whether they went north to Albany on the west side of the River or south to Weehawken and then north from Manhattan on the New York Central’s main route is unclear. In Buffalo, the trains transferred to the Lake Shore line of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway. Despite a reported derailment on this leg (which must have been minor), this route brought the Corps as far as Toledo, where the trains transferred again to the Wabash Railroad that allowed fast transport to Decatur and on to St. Louis. Newspapers along the route in towns such as Syracuse, Fort Wayne, and Decatur reported the movement. A planned breakfast stop in Decatur was cancelled when, according to The Daily Review, the train made excellent time and was too early for breakfast.
When the Corps of Cadets arrived in St. Louis on 30 May, they had to set up their encampment, although some work had been done already by enlisted soldiers. The weather was not great and the cadets had to work in mud. The Exposition was open from April to December of 1904 with certain periods of that time having themes. The Cadets were the stars of “Military Week” but shared the spotlight with other military academies and Regular Army troops. Attendance was often over 50,000 people per day. Hundreds of buildings and thousands of sculptures graced the grounds.
On their first day, a large parade was held that included hundreds of Union Civil War veterans. At the end, one paper says that “impromptu” military exercises were held. The cadets spent much of the next week parading, conducting exercises, and basically being shown off.
But, they had time for fun as well. Apparently there were no restrictions on cadet free time and they were allowed to leave the Fair as long as their destinations were approved by an officer. This was apparently necessary to prevent cadets from inviting each other to dinner and then telling their chain-of-command that they had been invited to dine somewhere. Perhaps at the Fair they enjoyed ice cream cones, hot dogs, and Dr. Pepper, all invented earlier but popularized for a national audience at the Exposition.
But not everything went as planned. First, dancing rules had to be issued. For example:
Cadets, dancing with ladies, must dance with their left arm extended and under no circumstances will they be allowed to bend the right elbow so as to draw their partner close to them.
Furthermore, social events had to be properly chaperoned. This became a problem when not enough chaperones could be found. The New York Times (9 June 1904) reported on a local newspaper account that said the following:
Inability to find, within the newly drawn circle of One Hundred fifty disengaged matrons to act as chaperons (sic) is the supposed cause of the cancellation by the Board of Lady Managers of the invitations sent out to the reception which was to have been tendered by that important body to the West Point cadets Wednesday evening.
That’s life. Sometimes you get to dance with your left arm extended and sometimes you don’t.
The Cadets returned to West Point in time for mid-June Graduation Exercises.
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"NO CHAPERONS, NO RECEPTION," New York Times, 9 June 1904.
"Yesterday and To-Day," The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 30 May, 1904.
"West Point Men Charge on Mud," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 30 May 1904.
"Breakfast Order was Cut Out," The Daily Review (Decatur, IL), 30 May 1904.
"The Board of Visitors — Cadets Starting for St. Louis," Poughkeepsie Eagle-News, 28 May 1904.