Eyewitness 1927: Coolidge keeps his cool

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An often repeated story about President Calvin Coolidge has him at a banquet, seated next to a Washington socialite.

She tells the famously laconic Vermont native that she has made a bet that she could persuade him to speak at least three words to her.

"You lose," Coolidge is said to have replied before continuing with his dinner.

Students attending Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University, would have had strong reason to believe that story. President Coolidge made a one-day visit to Pittsburgh to commemorate the Carnegie Institute's 31st Founders Day on Oct. 13, 1927. The Carnegie Institute was the original name for the Carnegie Museums.

His traveling companions included his wife Grace and Pittsburgh native Andrew W. Mellon, the long-time secretary of the Treasury. Mellon had been named to that post by Warren G. Harding, Coolidge's predecessor, and would continue to serve under Herbert Hoover.

"President Coolidge saw Pittsburgh in several ways in the tour of the city," the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the day after his visit. "He saw the material evidence of industrial supremacy in the mills, factories and business houses and the product of prosperity in the beautiful homes in the residential districts. All along the route he was greeted by school children, many of them waving small American flags."

The president's stops included a visit to the Fort Pitt Blockhouse at Pittsburgh's Point. The neighborhood around the oldest building in the city was very different 82 years ago. What is now Point State Park was the center of a crowded, noisy and dirty industrial quarter in 1927.

Arriving in Pittsburgh by train around 7:30 a.m., Coolidge and his wife Grace had breakfast and a brief rest at the Fifth Avenue mansion of Andrew Mellon's brother, R.B. Mellon.

"Police, under the direction of Superintendent of Police Peter P. Walsh and Assistant Superintendent Lou Coleman, patrolled the Mellon estate," the newspaper reported. Coolidge met with visiting diplomats in a sunken garden on the property, "where they were photographed by news photographers and motion picture men."

"Reporters were not permitted within many feet of the President, for he had issued orders that he did not wish to be interviewed on any subject," according to the Post-Gazette. "The newspapermen were instructed by secret service heads not to speak to the President."

While he was mum with reporters, Coolidge did agree to honor a request made by Samuel Harden Church, president of the Carnegie Institute.

Carnegie Tech students had gathered in Carnegie Music Hall, a few blocks down Forbes Avenue from their campus. There they greeted Coolidge with "applause and a 'Skibo' yell."

"The 'Hoot Mon' yell was given for Mrs. Coolidge," according to the Post-Gazette.

"Colonel Church explained to the students that he had promised the President that he would be asked to speak only once in Pittsburgh, but that under the circumstances the President might say a few words."

His response was classic Coolidge.

"I shall not break Colonel Church's promise to you," he said.

"He retired amid applause," according to the newspaper, after speaking just nine words.

Coolidge was the main speaker at the Carnegie Institute Founders Day luncheon, where he predicted, just two years before the start of the Great Depression, a continuing era of industrial peace and economic advances. "It has brought a great harvest of contentment and a great increase in effort and efficiency in production," he said.

About 10:30 p.m. that evening, Coolidge departed as he had arrived -- silently.

"[A] tired figure stood on the observation platform of a special train in the East Liberty railroad yards, in a drizzle of rain, and waved a faint goodby to scores of police and detectives ..."

"As the train pulled out, the President glanced up at a few workmen ... and to their shout of 'goodby' he waved again. He stood there until the darkness hid him."

Len Barcousky can be reached at lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. Past stories in the "Eyewitness" series, all drawing from contemporary reports in Pittsburgh's newspapers, can be read on post-gazette.com/pgh250.


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