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Strange Maps

409 – A Map of FDR’s Vacation


Whether out of financial prudence or budgetary necessity, the annual summer vacation has been a “staycation” for millions of families during this recession year. Local attractions have had to do, far-flung destinations will have to wait.

US presidents are not subject to the same level of financial stringency – at least not on a personal level: the presidential salary (*) easily allows for a luxurious trip to anywhere in the world. However, for reasons more to do with political symbolism, presidents choose to holiday domestically (**). Most recently, the Obamas vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard, the island off the Massachusetts coast also favoured by the Clintons during Bill’s presidency.

Because the exclusive, snobbish image of the Vineyard clashes with the economic hardships many Americans are now experiencing, President Obama felt obliged to defend the “quality time” he got to spend with his family there. President Clinton was advised to stay away from the island for a while in order not to appear ‘out of touch’ with ordinary Americans.

 Clearly, president Roosevelt did not have similar concerns in 1935. Even though the country was still suffering from the Great Depression, FDR went out of country to go deep-sea fishing off the Pacific coast of Mexico – but he did combine work with pleasure:

  • FDR left Washington (symbolised on this map by an image of Congress rather than the White House) by train, travelling west to alight in St Louis, MO; Omaha, NE; Fremont, NE (where the president had a speaking engagement); Cheyenne, WY; and Salt Lake City, UT.
  • The president also spoke at the Boulder Dam (now known as the Hoover Dam), at that point still a giant work in progress. The dam was the world’s largest concrete structure when it was completed, a year later – two years ahead of schedule.
  • FDR held speeches in Los Angeles and San Diego, possibly at the opening of that city’s California Pacific Exposition, held in Balboa Park (1935-1936).
  • That sort of concluded the official part of FDR’s Grand Tour, for then he boarded a US Navy cruiser to the Pacific Ocean off Mexico. The president, a keen angler, probably got some serious deep-sea fishing done.
  • FDR’s cruiser also called at Cocos Island, an uninhabited island about 340 miles out of the Pacific coast of Costa Rica (and not officially annexed by that country until 1947; it later might have served as Michael Crichton’s inspiration for the insular dinosaur sanctuary in his novel Jurassic Park).
  • A final stop on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal is indicated as Pearl Island. This is probably Isla del Rey, the main island of the Pearl Islands, an archipelago of over 100 islands (and probably best known now as the backdrop for several series of the Survivor reality tv show).
  • When crossing over into the Atlantic, president Roosevelt was not really visiting another country. The Panama Canal Zone was under US administration from 1903 to 1979. Incidentally, one of its more famous native sons is John McCain, who, had he been elected president in 2008, probably would have attracted his own set of ‘birthers’ (i.e. those who dispute his eligibility on the grounds that he was not born in the US).
  • The home stretch of FDR’s vacation jaunt led him across the Caribbean, past the eastern edge of Cuba (so close to Guantanamo, even then an American outpost, that one wonders whether he wouldn’t have stopped over there too).
  • Curiously, the end destination of FDR’s cruise is not indicated – possibly because it was unknown or kept secret at the time of publication. Two possibilities are indicated: Charleston, SC and Annapolis, MD.
  • Many thanks to Dan Anderson for sending in this map, taken form an (unspecified) newspaper from Green Bay, WI.

    (*) $400,000 a year since the last raise in 2001, not including travel expenses of $50,000 a month and other perks.

    (**) Abraham Lincoln left the White House for extended periods, but only went to Soldier’s Home, on a hill still inside the District of Columbia. Probably wise for a wartime leader not to travel too far away from the office. Several more recent presidents delighted in the downtime spent on their ranches. Lyndon Johnson loved to spend time on his ranch in Texas, where he had a herd of 400 Hereford cattle. Ronald Reagan spent a lot of time on horseback at his Rancho del Cielo near Santa Barbara, CA. George W. Bush broke the record for most days spent on presidential vacation while clearing brush on his ranch in Crawford, TX. Others vacationed according to their dynasty. The Kennedys had made Hyannis Port, MA their family resort, and the Kennebunkport, ME mansion favoured by George Bush (Sr) has been in the family since the early 20th century. Still others mix work and pleasure to such an extent that their holiday homes became known as the ‘Florida White House’ (Richard Nixon’s place in Key Biscayne, FL), the ‘Western White House’ (the same’s mansion in San Clemente’ CA), the ‘Little White House’ (Harry Truman’s Key West pad, used before him by president Taft and Thomas Edison, and after him by presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy). Another ‘Little White House’ was the pine house built for FDR in Warm Springs, GA. The president felt the springs after which the town was named were beneficial for the symptoms of his polio. He died in that house in 1945.


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