On July 27, 1923 at 1:15 p.m., President Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) arrives in Seattle from Alaska. Harding, the 29th president of the United States and the sixth to visit Seattle as president, is on a planned 40-day tour of the Western United States. As it turns out, however, the speeches he gives during his six-hour stay in Seattle will be the last not just of the trip but of his life. The president reviews the fleet in the harbor, visits the Bell Street Pier, rides through downtown, and greets schoolchildren at Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill. He gives a speech to a large crowd of Boy Scouts at a jamboree in Woodland Park, delivers an address about Alaska at the University of Washington, and speaks to members of the Press Club. Already showing signs of poor health, Harding departs Seattle by train and soon falls seriously ill. He will die six days later in California.
A Short but Busy Stay
Harding and his party, which included Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), who would be elected president in 1928, traveled from Alaska to Seattle by ship. All did not go well. Two destroyer divisions and a squadron of U.S. Navy planes escorted the presidential party, and in a dense fog off Port Townsend, the U.S. Army transport Henderson, carrying the president, rammed one of the destroyers.
The mishap put the visit far behind schedule, but Harding eventually arrived safely in the Elliott Bay harbor around 1:15 on July 27, 1923, and began a busy six-hour stay in Seattle. The president reviewed the navy fleet in the harbor and visited the Port of Seattle's Bell Street Pier. At 2 p.m. he rode in a parade through downtown. Harding then proceeded to Volunteer Park to greet schoolchildren.
By 3:30 p.m. he had moved on to Woodland Park, where the Boy Scouts of America were holding a national jamboree and a crowd of some 30,000 or more Boy Scouts and other young people had been waiting hours to hear the president. Harding gave his speech and led the Scouts in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, then departed for the University of Washington.
Address About Alaska
At the University of Washington Stadium beginning at 4 p.m., Harding spoke about Alaska to around 25,000 people. He said:
"Words seem inadequate to portray the grandeur, to measure the magnificence, to express the mightiness, or acclaim the glory of monumental mountains and their jeweled valleys ... . [w]ith God himself making merry in tossing ribbons of falling water, 500 to 2,000 feet long, like confetti at the carnival" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
About conservation he pronounced that:
"If ... we shall go on decimating the fisheries year by year till they have been ruined; and if then, because a rise in the price of paper shall have made it profitable, we shall turn over the forests for a like exploitation and a like destruction; if, in short, we are to loot Alaska as the possibility of profit arises now in one direction, now in another, then we shall never have a state or states in Alaska, we shall never have a community of stabilized society and home-tied people ... . Against a program of ruinous exploitation we must stand firmly" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
Harding spoke about oil:
"There is petroleum in the territory. A small production is already affording a profitable return refined in Alaska for Alaskan consumption. There are developments now in process by some of the larger commercial oil interests and there are dreams of measureless oil resources in the most northerly sections which are expressed in terms which sound more fabulous than real" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
As it turned out, Alaska's oil reserves proved to be more real than fabulous.
A Rapid Decline
Some in the audience noticed that the president seemed to rush through his address, skipping periods and pauses that might have elicited applause. Mrs. Harding paid close attention to the president, which many initially ascribed to her concern over the reception of his remarks on Alaska.
From the stadium the presidential party traveled by automobile to Queen Anne Hill and Children's Orthopedic Hospital. The First Lady rather than the president greeted well-wishers on the way, and at the hospital he did not leave the car during the visit. However, at 7 p.m. Harding was able to make a short address to members of the Press Club, who gave the president, a former newsman himself, an honorary membership and greeted his remarks about the press in Alaska with applause.
At 7:35 p.m., Harding departed by train from King Street Station. The next planned stop on the presidential trip was Portland, Oregon, but as it became apparent how sick Harding was, that stop was skipped and the train proceeded straight to California. Harding's Seattle speeches would be his last, as subsequent scheduled events were canceled due to his illness. (In the compendium of the speeches Harding delivered on his final trip, the remarks to the Press Club in Seattle are the last that Harding himself gave; the book concludes with the text of three that he planned to give in California -- one incomplete draft, one not delivered but released to the press, and one delivered on his behalf by his personal secretary, George Christian Jr., on the very day he died.)
President Warren G. Harding died of pneumonia and thrombosis in San Francisco on August 2, 1923.
Memorial in Woodland Park
In 1925 a memorial was erected in Woodland Park, where Harding had spoken to the Boy Scout jamboree two years earlier, to commemorate the president's final speeches. A "large concrete bandstand, with bas-relief sculptures of boy scouts and the late president" ("Chronological History ..."), the memorial was demolished in the late 1970s, when the Woodland Park Zoo's African Savanna exhibit was constructed, and buried under what became the savanna's central knoll.
A portion of the memorial was preserved. It had included two bronze statues of Boy Scouts saluting the president. The work of Seattle sculptor Alice Robertson Carr (1899-1996), the statues were donated to the Chief Seattle Council of the Boy Scouts and installed at its building on Rainier Avenue S in Seattle. One of the statues was later moved to the council's Camp Parsons in Brinnon, Jefferson County, with the other remaining at the entrance to the Seattle building.
The presidential visits to Seattle that preceded Harding's were those of Rutherford Hayes in 1880, Benjamin Harrison in 1891, Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, William Taft in 1909, and Woodrow Wilson in 1919.