A Voyage Up the Salt River

Robert Wood


Local historian Nancy Roan has her mother’s diary which contains this curious entry for November 17, 1932: “Up to Swamp to see the salt river parade tonight.” Her mother was Cora Hasson of the landmark DeHaven and Hasson Store in Frederick. Whatever could a “salt river parade” be and why in Swamp, of all places, which then was a country village with a few houses?


A quick research check reveals that most everybody in the 19th and early 20th centuries knew that “to row up Salt River” was the fate of defeated political parties in elections. A 1938 clipping from the Norristown Herald is titled “Salt River Voyages the Climax of Hot Political Battles.” The article notes: “When parading constituted the chief visible feature of political campaigns, back in the 19th Century, there were parades not only before election but also at least one parade after the election, this being the ‘Salt River Parade’ held by the victors.” Apparently these celebratory events crowed the victory to the world and lampooned the defeated. The parades would start on election night and sometimes last until dawn.


Invitations and tickets to a “Salt River Voyage” were printed in advance of election day and included broadsides, invitations, handbills, and cards of all colors mocking and satirizing the other party. The tickets would be for passage on the ship going  “Up Salt River” wherein the losing candidates for office would be taunted. For example in 1882 when the Democrats elected a Governor, the Republican President Judge, Charles H. Stinson, was defeated. Three different Salt River tickets were circulated in Norristown; one of them for passage on “The Mud-Scow Charles H. Stinson.” Various Republican politicos were lampooned on the mock tickets. For example Isaac Chism, a Norristown lawyer and opponent of alcohol, was listed as bartender. Examples abound. During the Civil War, northern Democrats, who more or less opposed the war, were labeled “copperheads.” After the 1864 election won by Republican Lincoln, tickets in Norristown sent Democrats to “The Saline Springs” where they would be serenaded by copper instruments. Long after the war, democrats were still being sailed to the “Copper Mines” by the Salt River.


Salt River parades were not always without incident. The Boyertown Area Historical Society’s home page notes: “November 12, 1888
The Salt River Parade in Bechtelsville ended tonight in a ‘grievous manner’. The Boyertown Drum Corps was attacked by a gang of ‘roughs’, but the musicians defended themselves with their fifes and drumsticks. Several horsemen in the parade came to their assistance. The musicians suffered no more than a few black eyes and slight scratches, but several of the ruffians slunk away with bad bruises. The gang leader, Abraham Dotterer, will probably be arrested for his part in the ‘disgraceful affair’ probably incited by rum and beer.”


Salt River parades and voyages were a National phenomenon. There are cartoons from the presidential campaign of 1848 that depict the obstacle of the Salt River standing in the way of all those who seek the high office.


The source of the “salt river” phrase is obscure. There is a Salt River in Missouri and a New York Times article of 1895 suggests an “office fiend” who lived about the mouth of the river ran for the legislature and was defeated. Nothing daunted, he moved to the next county upriver where he was again defeated; and so on to the next county with the same result. When people inquired about the office seeker the answer was “He’s still moving up the Salt River and running for the legislature.” However, there are many other suggestions as to the source of the phrase. One favored by this author is that the “salt river” was a river of tears shed by the losing candidates.


Now to get to our Salt River parade in Swamp, November 17, 1932. Limerick resident Doris Callow recalled that a relative of hers, Mary Hartman age 10, was killed by an auto in a Salt River parade in Boyertown about that date. Assuming this was the celebration of Democrat Franklin Roosevelt’s victory over Hoover, one would anticipate a parade being mentioned in the paper. It took Lindsay Dierolf, collections director of the Boyertown Area Historical Society, less than a minute to locate the November 17, 1932 front page of the Boyertown Democrat, and lo there was the headline “Big Salt River Parade Tonight.” The lengthy article begins: “The traditional “Salt River” parade celebrating an election victory, will be held this evening by the Democrats of Boyertown and neighboring towns.” The parade started at 6:30, went to New Berlinville, back to Boyertown, then down through Gilbertsville “to New Hanover and then to Pottstown. When the caravan of cars approaches Ringing Hill a number of bombs [aerial fireworks] will be exploded to herald the arrival of the Democrats in Pottstown. The Democrats of Pottstown…will form on Charlotte Street at Prospect and fall into line as the parade passes that point. The Royersford Democrats will join the parade.”  The parade wended through Pottstown to Royersford and Limerick and back to Pottstown


At the parade start in Boyertown, “It is expected that several hundred men with lawnmowers and mowing machines will lead the parade to cut the grass along the main streets. [Meaning?] Donkeys, hay wagons, floats with campaign slogans and various other entries will be in the line of march in Boyertown. The Drum and Bugle Corps of the American Legion and a band also will be in line.”


“The committee suggests that homes along the parade route be lighted with candles.” The lengthy article describes the planning and the meeting of dozens of representatives from the parade route and lower Berks County who attended.


The front page of the next week’s paper carried the headline, “Girl Dies as Result of Injury During Parade.” The article relates that Mary Elizabeth Hartman, 9, daughter of Mr. And Mrs. Charles C. Hartman was struck by an automobile and died. Interment was in Fairview Cemetery. “…the little girl and several of her friends were watching the Salt River parade form on South Reading Avenue. In attempting to cross the street Mary ran into the path of a car…” She was taken to the Pottstown Hospital where she died on Saturday, the paper said, of pneumonia.


“The child is survived by her parents, Mr. And Mrs. Charles C. Hartman. The maternal grandparents Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel Seasholtz…and the paternal grandmother Mrs. Mary Hartman.”


The driver from Sinking Springs was exonerated and the incident was ruled an “unavoidable accident.”