The Beleaguered President
James A. Garfield (1831-81) was a surprise candidate in 1880, mostly due to the vicious political infighting among various factions of the Republican party. Despite having been the youngest Major General in the Union Army, and having served for seven terms as an Ohio Congressman, he was virtually unknown outside of Washington – or Ohio.
The election was a squeaker. Less than 10,000 votes separated the candidates.
With all the trauma and drama of a fractured party, poor POTUS Garfield spent his first three months trying to fill his cabinet posts and other senior political appointments. It wasn’t easy, generally rancorous and alien to Garfield’s more accommodating disposition. It was also coupled with his wife’s severe case of malaria, only six weeks into his term.
Thus on July 2, he was eagerly looking forward to a summer vacation in New England. He had earned the rest.
Within minutes of his arrival at the Washington train station, he was shot by an assassin. He was taken back to the White House, and never left his bed again.
The Long Branch Connection
By 1880, Long Branch, NJ had become one of the premier summer watering holes in the US – along with Saratoga Springs (NY) and Newport (RI). Located in central NJ, it was an easy commute to both Philadelphia and New York, and it attracted a host of wealthy business industrialists. By the late 1860s, the attraction was magnified a thousandfold when General (and President) Ulysses S. Grant became a summer resident. To cement the drawing card, magnificent Monmouth Racetrack was built. Grant, while never a serious gambler, was a great appreciator of fine horses!
Meanwhile, Garfield languished for several weeks that summer of ’81, as infection set in on the wound from the bullet in his side that no one could locate.
By the end of an especially hot August, and despite the exhortations of hope and prayer, the POTUS (who always maintained his reason) had no illusions about his prognosis. He was dying and knew it.
He wanted to return to his Ohio home near Lake Erie – and “see the old folks” again. In rare consensus among his truculent medical team, they absolutely forbade the move: too far (500 miles), over the Appalachian Mountains – and most of all, it would be excruciatingly painful.
It was Lucretia Garfield who suggested Long Branch. The Garfields had been before and enjoyed it. Moreover, she had spent a month there recuperating from malaria, and extolled the curative powers of the ocean breezes. It was a shorter trip (250 miles), and no mountains, ergo doable – and if nothing else, the President would be cooler and more comfortable.
Arrangements were made. The Pennsylvania Railroad was happy to put a special train at his disposal. Charles Francklyn generously made his opulent “cottage” available. Every consideration was given to making the trip as comfortable as possible.
When a rough, rutted road, nearly a mile long, separated the train station from the Francklyn cottage, the Pennsylvania Railroad sent a special crew-cum-equipment to build a spur track right down Lincoln Avenue to the cottage’s front door – overnight. The entire town turned out to help however they could.
Despite all, Garfield died twelve days later. The train holding his coffin, now draped in black crepe, retraced it way along the spur track, to make the long slow trip to Washington.
Then the track was torn up.
The Tea House Connection
Oliver Byron was a resident of Long Branch. He was also a stage actor on Broadway. He obviously did well enough to live and own property in affluent Long Branch. Not long after Garfield’s death, for reasons known only to himself, he purchased spikes and ties and planks as souvenirs.
Then he engaged a local carpenter named William Presley to build a small cabin (about 10’x10’) from the planks, and painted it red, white and blue. Brown was sometimes quoted as commenting that since President Garfield was born in a log cabin, it was a fitting tribute. He put a couple of small tables and chairs inside, and occasionally served tea and pastry to “customers” willing to pay a small fee.
When Byron died, he willed it to Presley, who in turn willed to his son, and his son after him.
As might be expected, it became a rundown, faded and weatherbeaten eyesore.
The little Elberon train station on Lincoln Avenue, which was linked by the spur track to the Franklyn cottage, is still there, but has been remodeled many times over. Long Branch itself has undergone major renovations in the past two decades.
But Garfield’s Tea House still exists.
It has been repaired after years of weather and neglect, kept freshly painted, and is properly and respectfully installed on the property of one of the last relics of 19th century Long Branch – The Church of the Presidents, which is presently undergoing its own restorations.
James Garfield and his wife had attended services there, before his lingering demise. So did General and Mrs. Grant – and a few other presidential visitors.
Garfield’s Tea House has finally found a suitable and permanent home. You can go and see it, but alas, no tea or cake is available. Yet.
Ackerman, Kenneth D. – The Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003
Brown, E.E. The Life and Public Services of James A. Garfield, D. Lothrop & Company , 1881
Peskin, Allan. Garfield, The Kent State University Press, 1978
The Writers Project, WPA State of New Jersey – Entertaining A Nation: The Career of Long Branch – The American Guide Series, 1940