U.S. President Benjamin Harrison visits Tacoma on May 6, 1891.

  • By Priscilla Long
  • Posted 1/18/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5067

On May 6, 1891, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) visits Tacoma. Virtually the entire population of 36,006 turns out in the morning rain to greet him. President Harrison is the 23rd President of the United States (1889-1893), and the first to visit Tacoma. On November 11, 1889, he had signed the enabling Act for Washington to become a state.

Beflowered and Bedraped

Vast preparations preceded the visit of the nation's chief executive. The historian Murray Morgan writes:

"The little wooden railroad station at seventeenth and Pacific was repainted. The police were issued new tassles: blue for patrolmen, white for officers. The fire equipment was polished until it would reflect any sun that might chance to shine. Every building in the downtown area was beflowered and bedraped. On the evening before the great day, businessmen joined hired laborers in completing a series of triumphal arches spanning the mud lagoon that was Pacific Avenue" (South on the Sound).

On the big day, factory whistles woke the town at 6 a.m. Everyone came out in the rain and by 7:30 a.m. people lined the parade route along Pacific Avenue. The crowd jostling umbrellas included miners, sailors, and lumberman. There were men, women, and many children, a diverse and motley populace, white, black, Japanese, and American Indian.

At two minutes before 8 a.m. a 21-gun salute announced the President's arrival by train. Washington Governor Ferry and Tacoma mayor George Kandle escorted President Harrison and his entourage (including his wife, and bodyguards) from their parlor car to a carriage pulled by a team of four gray horses.

The procession began. The first triumphal arch it passed under was the Lumbermen's Arch, contributed by the St. Paul and Tacoma lumber company. Next was the Coal Arch, crowned by an eight-ton block of coal. The sign read, "We Can Warm the World on Coal." Next came the Iron Arch, formed with hematite from Ellensburg, magnetic ores from Cle Elum, pig iron from the foundry at Irondale, and a gas pipe festooned with a sign that read, "Undeveloped, but Mountains of It." The last arch, the grain arch, designed by architect C. August Darmer, was made with alternating sacks of grain and flour. Its sign stated, "Washington Can Feed All Mankind."

A Rather Severe Storm

At 9th Street the carriage turned left up the hill to C Street and the President said: "I wish you would urge the horses to trot. This is a rather severe storm." At the Annie Wright Seminary a troupe of maidens waved flags and the President doffed his hat. Tacoma's school children were amassed between 9th and 11th streets on Tacoma Avenue. The President offered his opinion that they shouldn't be out in the rain, but the mayor assured him that Puget Sound children didn't mind the rain.

At 10th Street the Superintendent of Schools stood ready to deliver a speech, but the president wished to continue on past, due to the hard rain. At 11th Street, 119 students from the Indian school were prepared to serenade the President but the entourage continued on by without stopping.

At the Five Corners a speaker's platform had been erected and the President climbed up. Various dignitaries were introduced as it continued pouring rain. A few fights broke out in the crowd. Finally the President stood to speak. He made reference to the area's mountain and mountains, which, however, he had so far never seen, despite this being his second visit to the region. On the first visit smoke from a forest fire had obscured the view and on this visit it was clouds and rain. He then said:

"A harbor like this, so safe and commodious and deep, should be made to bear a commerce that is but yet in its infancy. I should like to see the prows of some of those great steamship lines entering your port and carrying the American flag at the mast head. ... We have been content in other years to allow other nations to do the carrying trade of the world. We have been content to see the markets of those American republics lying south of us mastered and controlled by European nations. ... The time is propitious for re-establishment upon the sea of the American merchant marine" (quoted in South on the Sound).

The President and Mrs. Harrison were then honored in the Tacoma Theater with gifts of a painting and a poem. They were then escorted down to the docks and embarked on the steamer City of Seattle for a city to the north which none of the Tacoma papers mentioned by name.

At 1:35 p. m., President Harrison and his entourage arrived in Seattle, where it was still raining. Virtually the entire population of 42,837 came out in the rain to greet the President of the United States.


Murray and Rosa Morgan, South on the Sound: An Illustrated History of Tacoma and Pierce County (Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, Inc. 1984), 66-69; Greg Lange, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison visits Seattle on May 6, 1891," HistoryLink Timeline library (www.historylink.org); Paul W. Harvey, Tacoma Headlines (Tacoma: The Tacoma News Tribune, 1962), 30.

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