President Grover Cleveland drops in on Washington

Published 7:40 am Friday, January 26, 2024

In the pre-dawn hours of May 19, 1894, the tranquil town of Washington, N.C., nestled along the banks of the Pamlico River, received an unexpected and distinguished visitor. Having concluded a hunting and fishing expedition along the Outer Banks, President Grover Cleveland arrived at 4 a.m. aboard the U.S. Lighthouse Service Tender Violet.

Accompanying the President were notable figures such as Secretary of the Treasury John G. Carlisle, Secretary of State Walter Quintin Grisham, and Admiral “Fighting Bob” Evans. Having spent days hunting waterfowl and fishing in the picturesque coastal landscapes, the party found themselves amid a town awakening to the early morning light.

Washington had hosted one previous president before Cleveland’s visit, but it wasn’t her namesake; George. The closest he came to Washington was Greenville while on his way to New Bern. But on September 8, 1821, it was President James Monroe who visited the town and attended a grand ball at the Leroy Hotel. This lodge stood at the current location of today’s Mulberry House restaurant on the corner of Main and Respess Streets.

As the Violet docked, the entire party expressed surprise and pleasure at the bustling town of Washington and its beautiful waterfront. President Cleveland, known for his preference for simplicity, particularly favored the Steamer Violet as it lacked the formalities associated with a ship of the U. S. Navy.
The news of President Cleveland’s presence spread through the town like wildfire, yet it didn’t elicit widespread enthusiasm. Only a handful of curious residents ventured to the government yard, and only two or three individuals, including Mr. Fred Hoyt, boarded the steamer. Mr. Hoyt had brought 350 rounds of ammunition for the hunters and copies of The Herald and Gazette as per the President’s order. A Gazette reporter eager to capture the historic moment also came aboard.

The party recounted their adventures, proudly revealing that they had bagged 350 birds on Body Island just the previous Friday. President Cleveland led the tally with an impressive 144 kills. Near Hatteras, their blue fish and channel bass catch surpassed anything the President had witnessed before.

Despite the desire to hold a reception, President Cleveland was exhausted from the previous day’s activities. Moreover, with the steamer already coaled up and set to depart early, time was needed to permit such formalities. At nine a.m. that same morning, the distinguished party gathered on deck as the Violet steamed out of Washington. President Cleveland took off his hat to acknowledge the salutes of the people lining the wharves, leaving behind memories of a unique and unexpected visit to our charming town on the banks of the Pamlico River.

Ray Midgett is a Washington resident, local historian and the president of the Historic Port of Washington Project.