President Theodore Roosevelt visits Tacoma on May 22, 1903.

  • By Rubén Casas
  • Posted 4/28/2022
  • Essay 22462

On May 22, 1903, President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt (1856-1919) visits Tacoma on his tour of the Pacific Coast. Following a celebratory procession through the city, the president stops at Wright Park, where he gives a speech to a crowd of thousands about the need for a strong navy. A 35-piece band plays for half-an-hour before the president is introduced by Tacoma Mayor Louis Campbell. Later, Roosevelt lays a cornerstone for a new Masonic Temple in Tacoma and then repairs to his rooms at the Tacoma Hotel, where he stays the night before traveling on to Bremerton and Seattle the following day.

Teddy in Town 

President Roosevelt and his entourage arrived in Tacoma by train from Olympia at 4 p.m. on May 22 and were met by throngs of people and a 21-gun salute. His procession to Wright Park took about an hour, and people living along the parade route decorated their homes and showed up in gala dress to welcome the president. Newspaper reports put the number of spectators at 20,000, not all from Tacoma. Trains from Gray’s Harbor brought many from parts south and west, and by mid-afternoon, reported the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "the crowds became so dense in the business district that there was a perfect jam an hour before the president was due to arrive. Several thousand went out to Wright park early in the afternoon in order to get positions near the speakers' stand before the press began later, and people were gathered in hundreds along the streets of the residence districts traversed by the presidential procession" ("Speaks for a Big Navy"). 

The procession moved from the train station up Pacific Avenue, turned up the hill at Ninth Street, followed that thoroughfare to C Street, and proceeded north on C Street to Division Avenue and up Division Avenue to Tacoma Avenue. From there Roosevelt toured residential streets before circling back to Wright Park. According to the Post-Intelligencer, "As fast as the procession would pass a given point hundreds of men and swarms of children would run up a side street to another parallel with the line of march and would race down the thoroughfare until they were in advance of the procession and would then return to the line of march. A number of Indians from the Puyallup reservation, who were driving in wagons and riding horses, followed" ("Speaks for a Big Navy").

At Wright Park

At Wright Park, a rope was stretched 15 feet from the speakers' stand, and inside this enclosure were Spanish-American war veterans and members of the Grand Army posts, who acted as a guard of honor. After acknowledging the soldiers and veterans, and complimenting the people of Washington, Roosevelt turned his attention to affairs of the U.S. military:

"I wish to say just one word this afternoon to you here in this city of destiny, in this city by the Sound, on our foreign policy and upon what must ever be the main prop of any good foreign policy -- the American navy. In the old days when I first came to the Little Missouri, there was a motto on the range: 'Never draw unless you mean to shoot.' That is a pretty sound policy for a nation in foreign affairs. (Applause) Do not threaten; do not bluster; do not insult other people, above all; but when you make up your mind that the situation is such as to require you to take a given position, take it and keep it. (Applause) and have it definitely understood that what you say you are ready to make good. (Applause) I earnestly believe and of course I hope with all my heart that there will always be peace between the United States and other powers, but I wish that peace to come to us not as a favor granted in contempt, but to be the kind of peace that comes to the just man armed. (Applause) that peace that we can claim as a matter of right" (Speech transcript, May 22, 1903). 

Roosevelt went on to advocate for a formidable navy to protect U.S. interests in the Pacific, calling advances in the navy "the surest means of keeping peace" (Speech transcript, May 22, 1903). The topic of the president's address was unexpected but welcome, wrote the Post-Intelligencer: "That President Roosevelt should reserve the topic of the navy until he reached Puget sound is regarded as most significant, not alone by the people of Tacoma, but by those who form members of his party. The speech which he delivered here today came as a surprise to those who have been following him since he left Washington. The weight of his words is great, and they were delivered in a stirring manner ... The president remarked the beauty of the scene as he closed his address, and stood gazing at the throngs of brightly decorated people in the beautiful sunlight, scattered about the lawn and partly hidden among the trees" ("Speaks for a Big Navy").

Later, a red oak tree was planted in Wright Park to commemorate Roosevelt's visit. Known as the Teddy Roosevelt Oak, the tree still stands in front of the Seymour Botanical Conservatory on G Street.

Bon Voyage

On the evening on May 22, Roosevelt attended a dinner in his honor at the Tacoma home of U.S. Senator Addison G. Foster (1837-1917). On May 23, Roosevelt "arose at about his customary time between 6:30 and 7 o’clock" and had breakfast with members of his delegation in a private banquet room at the Tacoma Hotel. "The hour at which he retired the previous night, after the dinner given in his honor, was late, but the president is so constituted that he quickly recuperates his strength when he has a chance to rest, and after a short lapse of the strain he looks almost as fresh as when he started his long tour of the states" ("Receives a Present ...").  

The presidential entourage then left the Tacoma Hotel for the Tacoma wharf. He was met by crowds along the route and at the wharf itself. These crowds had "with difficulty been held in check" prior to the arrival of the president's carriage but managed to "break all bounds" to get a last look at the president as he boarded the steamer. The Spokane departed Tacoma accompanied by a 21-gun salute from the revenue cutter McCulloch, and the president was treated to a clear day on Puget Sound, affording him views of the Olympics and Mount Rainier — "a view which could scarcely be surpassed in point of grandeur,” according to one newspaper account.

This part of his visit stirred conflict between rival cities Tacoma and Seattle as the latter wanted to be the one to lead the escort to the naval base in Bremerton. Ten days before Roosevelt arrived in Tacoma, The New York Times published a story titled "Puget Sound Cities at War," noting that officials from Seattle thought they should be the ones to escort the president and his party to Bremerton because the base was nearer to Seattle and was considered a city landmark.

Presidential Secretary William Loeb Jr. (1866-1937), who approved the plans and arrangement for Roosevelt’s visit, had specified that the capacity aboard the Spokane had been reached and there would be no room for a delegation from Seattle. A committee was formed by indignant Seattle Congressmen William Humphrey (1862-1934), and this committee visited Tacoma in early May to demand that 10 to 12 men from Seattle be allowed to accompany the president. Humphrey threatened to be at the Tacoma dock on May 23 if space wasn’t made and invitations extended before the visit, where he would appeal to the president himself for permission. 

At the end of this meeting, Tacoma established its own committee to explore the possibility of rescinding invitations to prominent Tacomans to make space for Seattleites. "This is believed to be impossible," reported The New York Times ("Puget Sound Cities ..."). Eventually, Senator Foster invited only Humphrey from Seattle to attend the Tacoma dinner in Roosevelt's honor and sail to Bremerton the next day. Humphrey declined. 


"Tacoma Ready to Greet Him," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 21, 1903, p. 2; "Speaks for a Big Navy," Ibid., May 23, 1903, p. 1; "Receives a Present From the Workingmen," Ibid., May 24, 1903, p. 13; "Puget Sound Cities at War,” The New York Times, May 10, 1903 (; Editorial, The Seattle Times, May 21, 1903, p. 6; Speech transcript, "Address of President Roosevelt at Wright Park, Tacoma, Washington, May 22, 1903," Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library website accessed April 27, 2022 (

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