Tour honors local history on Presidents Day

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Area history enthusiasts were treated to a walking tour revolving around local history Monday – with a special emphasis on all things presidential.


Washington & Jefferson College, named after two of the nation’s founding presidents, was the ideal location for the tour that celebrated the history of local presidential visits on the holiday honoring the nation’s past chief executives.


About 70 people showed up to participate in the tour, which journeyed through campus and beyond in search for local ties to the various presidents who have visited Washington over the past couple of centuries.


At least 15 presidents visited Washington before, during or after serving their terms. From James Monroe’s visit to “Little Washington” in 1817 to Barack Obama’s trip in 2008, a surprising number of American leaders have traveled through this relatively small town in Pennsylvania.


“The major reason many of these presidents were in Washington was the National Road,” said tour host and W&J professor of history Thomas Mainwaring. “It was the new transportation link of 1818.”


Along with his co-host, English professor Jennifer Harding, Mainwaring spent the afternoon lending historical insight to various buildings and places.


Ironically, neither of the two namesakes of the college – George Washington and Thomas Jefferson – had ever been here.


“We think it’s important to note that neither ever came to Washington,” Harding said. “The closest [George] Washington ever came was Millers Run,” a stream in Mt. Pleasant. Harding said the closest Jefferson ever came to the area was his approval of the National Road while in office.


W&J’s oldest building, McMillan Hall, was the site of James Monroe’s 1817 visit. Built in 1793, the structure is the third-oldest building in continual use on a college campus in America.


Tour guides squashed some of the local lore around what was arguably Washington’s most famous presidential visit. In 1962, sitting President John F. Kennedy spoke in front of the courthouse.


“There was a rumor that he was with Marilyn Monroe,” Harding said. “But that was definitely not true because she had died two months prior.”


Harding noted that the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred four days later, and JFK would be dead roughly a year later.


The idea for the event came when the two professors learned they were giving similar tours of the campus to their students during first-year seminar courses they were teaching.


“I like the idea of anything that gets you out of your car and lets you walk around,” Harding said.


The pair said they did a lot of research for the tour, including rummaging through the archives of both the Washington Observer and Reporter, along with their predecessor, the Examiner. An exit thesis on the National Road by former student Hillary Miller also provided a wealth of information.


“There is a lot of history that has been buried,” Mainwaring said. “We just wanted to package all the local history in a way that ties it in with local places.”


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