A 1958 Class Trip to Washington DC
A Trip to Washington DC
In the late spring of 1958, the eighth grade class of my Catholic School in Wisconsin made a weekend trip to visit the sights in and around Washington D.C. Being my first travel away from home, it was an interesting and very exciting experience which I will always treasure.
In this article, I reflect on the train trip and the historical sights which I toured in and around our nation's Capitol.
Preparation for Class Trip
At the beginning of 1958, my Saint Thomas Aquinas School eighth grade teacher, Sister Salutaria, suggested a class trip to Washington D.C. prior to our graduation. The chosen time frame was on a weekend in late May. We would depart by train on a Friday afternoon and return to Wisconsin on Monday morning. In Washington, we would learn about American history by visiting the White House, the Capitol Building, and even tour President Washington's estate at Mount Vernon, Virginia.
Originally I feared that I would not be able to make the trip because my parents were poor farmers and could not afford to pay the cost for the trip. Fortunately, a local Waterford businessman took care of the $50 cost for train fares, one night in a D.C. hotel, and sightseeing excursion expenses.
Train Travel from Milwaukee to Washington
After what seemed like an eternity, the day of the long-awaited school trip arrived. On a warm Friday morning in late May, I set out for school with a small used suitcase.
Following the attendance at an 8:00 Mass at the school church, our eighth-grade class departed Waterford for Milwaukee. We were accompanied by a few seventh-grade students, Sister Salutaria, and about three-parent escorts.
Early Friday afternoon, we arrived at the Milwaukee Road Station in downtown Milwaukee. It was now time for the 90-minute commuter train ride from Milwaukee to Chicago, There must have been 25-30 kids in our group, and we had a joyous time on the first leg of our journey.
It was now time to begin our 15-hour train ride adventure from Chicago to Washington D.C.
Since this was my first time out of Wisconsin, I marveled at the size of Chicago as we slowly pulled away from the station. Probably at around 6:00, we were led to the dining car for dinner. I cannot remember exactly what I had, but the food seemed very delicious. While looking out of the coach window, I asked a conductor if we had finally departed Chicago. The reply was that we were still going through East Chicago and would soon be entering Gary, Indiana. Never had I realized that Chicago was so vast.
At around midnight, I remember gazing out the window and seeing the sky lit up with fire coming from stacks. A passing conductor pointed out that we were now passing by Pittsburg which was the steel capital of the U.S. at that time.
After being entertained with fireworks better than any Fourth of July celebration, I finally fell asleep in my coach seat and didn't awaken until dawn. As I opened my eyes, I heard voices saying that we were now passing by Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. From my American history study in school, I knew that John Brown was killed there leading a slave insurrection around 1860.
Having crossed the Potomac River and left Harper's Ferry, the train now cruised through the green meadows of Maryland. It was now less than one hour before we would be arriving at Union Station in Washington D.C., our final destination.
The White House
Saturday Morning Activities in Washington D.C.
I'm guessing that it was between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. when our B&O train pulled into Union Station in Washington. A big tour bus was expecting us, and our first stop was at the White House. All I can remember is going into a big white building and being led past a few big rooms on the first floor. Evidently, I didn't pay attention to where I was because I didn't realize I had been in the White House until a few minutes after our group had left!
Our next stop was done Pennsylvania Avenue at the U.S. Capitol Building. We had learned from our history class that the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives convened meetings in the Capitol. After being hypnotized by the architecture and especially the Rotunda, we were allowed to ascend to the gallery and have a view of the chamber where the U.S. Senate convenes. No legislative sessions were being held on the Saturday morning when we visited, but it was still interesting to see where history has been made. Following a 30 minute stay, our group assembled in front of the Capitol for a photo. How I wish I still had that picture to share with my readers.
The final attraction on Saturday morning was a visit to the Washington Monument. Located on the Mall about halfway between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, construction began in 1848 and was completed in 1888. It is a 555-foot edifice, and upon our arrival, we had the choice of either riding an elevator to the top or climbing the inside steps. All of the boys in my class decided to take the steps and look at the various huge stones which were assembled for the Monument. After walking up to the top, we peered out of the windows and had a great view of Washington D.C. I remember running down the steps as in some sort of race with my classmates.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Saturday Afternoon Activities
At around noon, we had our lunch in a cafeteria of one of the museums on the Mall. All the entrees and especially the chocolate cake looked very delicious and inviting. Upon leaving the cafeteria, our group headed for the Smithsonian Museum across the Mall. What I can still remember is seeing the Wright Brothers' first plane suspended from the ceiling.
Following our tour of the Smithsonian, we got back into our tour bus and drove past the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. Our next stop would now be the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. We arrived just in time to see the changing of the guard at the Tomb. After getting into the bus again, we then drove through Arlington Cemetery with a guide pointing out the sites of graves for former Presidents and war heroes. As we passed the site of President William Howard Taft's grave, I remember the guide mentioning that Taft was our nation's heaviest President and that he needed a special coffin built.
At around 5:30, we checked into our hotel which was a few blocks from the White House. The Willard Hotel was quite old and I was assigned a room with a seventh-grade boy. We were on our own for dinner that evening. At the suggestion of a classmate, we went to a diner down the street and had hamburgers while listening to Elvis Presley hits on the jukebox.
Mount Vernon Virginia
Everyone in our group got up early on Sunday morning because Sister had said that we would be attending Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. A bus was waiting for us at around 8:00, and I can't recall whether the Mass started at 8:30 or 9:00. Actually, I have no recollection at all of attending Mass at the Basilica.
Probably at about 10:00 when Mass was over, we all headed out by bus to George Washington's estate at Mount Vernon, Virginia, right across the Potomac River outside of Washington. At Mount Vernon, we toured many of the inside rooms of the mansion, but what I can still remember the best is standing next to the crypt of the father of our country and seeing a lock of his gray hair under glass. Before departing Mount Vernon early in the afternoon, I purchased a few small souvenirs and also a small boxwood plant for my mother. I cannot remember anything else from Sunday, but we probably departed at around 5:00 from Union Station for our long trip back home.
The trip and activities on Saturday and Sunday made me so tired that I probably slept on the train most of the way back to Chicago. I have no memory of transferring to the Milwaukee Road in Chicago, but I do remember arriving back in Milwaukee at about 8:00 or 9:00 on Monday morning. This was a very exciting, educational, and interesting trip which I will cherish for all of my life.
© 2016 Paul Richard Kuehn