History, Seward History

Another President Comes to Seward, Alaska

Warren G. Harding

by Doug Capra © 2015

The following is excerpted from Doug Capra’s book, The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords (© 2014) published by the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area with Ember Press. This excerpt just covers his time in Seward. For the complete story, check out the book.

Warren G. Harding’s trip to Alaska, with an entourage of sixty-seven people, turned out as delightful as the President and First Lady had expected. The party included Secretary of Commerce Herbert C. Hoover and Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace, both of whom planned to conduct public hearings throughout the territory. Also along: the Chief of the Forest Service, Col. W.B. Greeley; the President’s personal secretary and physician; several aides; secret service agents; and a bevy of newspaper reporters.

In perfect weather and calm seas the Henderson headed north along the Alaska coast at twelve knots. The Territory had only ten sizable towns and a population of 60,000. The largest community, Juneau, had only 2,000 residents. The onboard press was more interested in the sights than politics, and Harding’s responsibilities were mostly informal and celebratory. Aides had taken seventy-five motion pictures aboard the Henderson, and as the party traveled north, they were shown in the dining room. Harding often stood out on deck smoking his pipe and watching the films through a window. The U.S. Navy band played during lunch and dinner while people danced. In the evenings passengers could hear the Hardings and close friends singing old favorites like “Maggie” and “Genevieve.”

The President arrived in Seward aboard the troop transport Henderson on July 13, 1923, escorted by the Hull and the Cory. The people of Resurrection Bay had never seen such a fleet, which included the minesweeper Tern, the survey ship Cuyama, the collier Jason, and four S-type submarines.

A progressive Alaskan coastal town, Seward averaged a steamer visit every three days during the summer. The current mayor, L.V. Ray, (the President of Alaska’s first Territorial Senate) was considered one of the best trial lawyers of the north. Whenever a steamer arrived, his secluded office in the rear of the old Harriman Bank Building hosted some of Alaska’s and this country’s most important legal and political figures. The town had most of the goods and services then available in the Lower 48 and was able to provide for most of its own food needs. Seward’s modern self-sufficiency surprised both the East Coast press and President Harding.

As the Henderson passed into Resurrection Bay, Harding commented: “I should rather have this gateway bear my name than any other of the wonders of Alaska.” Governor Scott Bone conducted a ceremony at the ship’s forward upper deck to officially name the entrance. Local painter and decorator Aaron Erickson painted “Harding Gateway” in white 12-foot letters, 125 feet long across the cliffs of Fox Island. A few days before Harding’s arrival, the city of Seward officially named the ice atop the Kenai Mountains, as well as one of its largest outlet glaciers near the entrance to the bay, the Harding Glacier. Today it is called the Harding Icefield and Bear Glacier and is the centerpiece of Kenai Fjords National Park.

Harding’s secretary, George B. Christian, Jr., had sent letters to Mayor Ray detailing arrangements for the President’s arrival in Seward. The railroad station platform was to be clear so that the Presidential party could board without delay or incident. Only five members of the local committee would be allowed to meet the President and his wife and escort them to their car. Each of the seven touring cars with tops down had to be numbered with white eight- inch-square cards attached to the lower right-hand corner of the wind- shield.

Arrangements were outlined for baggage handling and for seating at luncheons, dinners, and speaking places. Christian issued special passes to certain members of the party so they could move freely and quickly back and forth through security. All platforms, balconies, and stands from which the President would speak had to be inspected and approved beforehand. In all parades, the band must march directly in front of the President’s car.

Christian wrote to Ray:

“Every detail incident to carrying out the program approved by the Secretary to the President must be agreed upon and thorough- ly provided before the President’s arrival. No changes, however slight, are to be made in the itinerary or of the programs after completion and approval by the Secretary to the President. Any such changes if attempted will be disregarded.”

Mayor Ray, working with the President’s secretary, arranged for a possible trip to the Naval Radio Station and for Seward’s children to assemble where President and Mrs. Harding would “extend greetings to our ‘kiddies’.” From there, the party would move to the railroad depot where President and Mrs. Harding would board the Alaska Railroad’s  “Presidential Special.” All this was designed to take place within two hours.

Emphasizing Secretary Christian’s requirements, Mayor Ray wrote a statement to local citizens:

“Obey unhesitatingly all requests of the Secret service Agents, United States Marshal Sullivan, and his deputies, and of Chief of Police Walker and assistants. Do not crowd about the entrances, or congregate near the hall where the reception to the children is given. The cooperation of every citizen is respectfully requested in strictly observing the requirements detailed. Such requirements are the result of experience, expected to be followed, and are issued by Federal Officers in charge of the Presidential Party.”

Certainly never before and never since has such a motorcade traveled through Seward streets. President and Mrs. Harding, probably with Mayor and Mrs. L. V. Ray, rode in the first car, followed by the Secret Service in the next vehicle, and then twelve more cars carrying Cabinet members as well as members of Harding’s staff, the military, and the movie and press corps. The press corps alone included twenty-four people. Perhaps only after the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake and the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill has so much press descended upon Seward.

Mayor Ray had everything ready for the visit. A huge evergreen arch decorated the dock, and businesses along Fourth Avenue sported red, white, and blue bunting and dozens of flags. The town had even installed a siren to announce Harding’s arrival. Mayor Ray wanted Seward’s children to have fond and lasting memories of the visit, so the reception at the Odd Fellows Hall included all the town’s children lining up to meet and shake hands with President and Mrs. Harding. Mrs. Ray, chair of the Ladies Reception Committee, presented Mrs. Harding with a Native basket from Attu, and held a tea in her honor. Mrs. Pat (Ray) Williams, L.V. Ray’s daughter, not only met the President but attended the tea held by her mother. (Pat died last summer at age 104).

His short visit to Seward at an end, the President boarded the train for Anchorage and the Interior. A crowd gathered around the railroad station to wave goodbye and take pictures. After delivering a speech from the caboose, Harding headed north.

While Harding toured Alaska, his ten-ship flotilla remained in Resurrection Bay. With a thousand soldiers on leave, town and military officials together scheduled boxing matches, baseball games, picnics, parades and band concerts. Locals delighted in watching the Marine detachment’s daily drills down Main Street. The fleet was scheduled to sail in five days to rendezvous with the Presidential party in Cordova.

But Seward would be in for a surprise. Probably due to Mrs. Harding’s fatigue, the President changed plans and decided to return to Seward rather than take another auto trip to Chitina followed by a train ride to Cordova on the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad. This change would give the Presidential party an extra thirty-six hours in Seward to relax before leaving Alaska.

Upon the President’s arrival back in Seward, the Navy band greeted him with “Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here!” Mayor Ray, who had accompanied Harding to Fairbanks, asked the President what Seward could do to please him during his brief stay. Would he like a parade or a dance or other public event? Probably as exhausted as his wife or more so, Harding simply stated, “I want a day of peace.”

Ray saw to it that the President got his request. For those short hours, the business of governing this nation was directed from Seward and Resurrection Bay. And President Warren G. Harding, confronted with scandals, corruption, and disgrace awaiting him at home, leisurely walked Fourth Avenue, Seward’s main street and business district, and experienced perhaps one of the last restful days of his life. The other members of the Presidential party went shopping, hiking, fishing, and mountain climbing.

Although he had an important speech to deliver in Seattle, Harding wanted to relax before working on it. He decided to take a stroll. Mayor Ray instructed the town to conduct business as usual and not bother the President with petty political issues. Townspeople complied. The behavior of Seward citizens even impressed the newsmen, who complimented them for not approaching Harding with demands, as had been the case in most other towns.

“He talked to everybody with that simplicity and charm of manner which makes friends for him,” The New York Times reported. When the President passed a Fourth Avenue fish market, its owner, Sven Lundblad, came out in his shirt sleeves to greet him. Sixty year old, Lundblad had been in Alaska for thirty years and wrote poetry on the side. Lundblad approached Harding with “Let me recite a poem for you.”

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“Go ahead,” said the President.

In his heavy Swedish accent and with much dramatic effect, Lundblad launched into his poem:

The bay is a rapture, our sense enthralling,

The Inlet is a wonderful sea,

The shores in their northerly verdure are calling,

Inviting all of me to be free.

The ranges and crags give us pride;

We admire the snow, the purist of white,

The shimmering glaciers, the sun set afire,

Enhancing our thrills at the sights.

“That’s fine,” said the President when Lundblad had finished. “I should like to use it in my Seattle speech. Have you a copy?”

Lundblad just happened to have many copies of it, each printed neatly on a picture postcard. Harding was delighted: “This is splendid,” he said. “Who wrote it?”

Lundblad admitted his poetic talents and the President complimented him. Then, since the poet owned a fish market, Harding asked Lundblad to judge a dispute. What was the better fish commercially, red or king salmon? During his walk, in a debate with District U.S. Marshal Harvey Sullivan, Harding had maintained red salmon the more valuable. Before reaching Lundblad’s shop, the President had appealed to another fish market owner who had told him that, although many maintained king salmon had a finer flavor, red had more value commercially. Lundblad comfirmed Harding’s position.

“I win,” the President told Sullivan.

A member of Harding’s party wanted a manicure and a debate ensued as to whether a small town like Seward could offer such civilized services. Impressed with what he saw all around him, Harding bet a reporter they could get a manicure in Seward. “We’ll make it a tin of tobacco,” said the President. When they reached a barbershop, Harding asked for a manicure and found none to be had in town. A few doors beyond the barber, Harding found a tobacconist and paid his wager. The President also bought a plug of chewing tobacco for another member of his party. “I am doing this in memory of dear old Knute Nelson,” he said. “This was his favorite brand.” (Knute Nelson, aka Knud Evanger, had died on April 28, 1923. He was a Norwegian-American attorney and at one time a member of both the Minnesota and Wisconsin state legislatures, as well as both a U.S. Congressman and Senator from Minnesota. He was also that state’s twelfth governor.)

During Harding’s stroll through town, many children recognized him and he stopped to talk. A twelve-year-old girl ran out of her house and asked Harding to pose for a photo. Afterwards, he asked her name and was told it was Beulah. “I like the name Beulah,” he said. “I’ve got a cousin of that name and I’m going to see her when we get to Los Angeles.”

Four-year-old Louie Miller, son of a local barber, came running by Harding with a pencil stuck over his ear. The President stopped him and asked if he planned to do any writing.

“Sure,” Louie said.

“Would you like to have another pencil to go over the other ear?” Harding asked.

“Sure,” the lad replied.

Harding took a long, nicely sharpened pencil from his pocket and placed it behind Louie’s other ear. The youngster shook his head, knocking the pencil to the ground. He picked it up, took the other off his ear, and turned the two over and over comparing them. He finally handed the gift pencil back to the President with: “It’s too long for me. I guess I can’t use it.”

“He’s going to be a businessman,” Harding chuckled. “Isn’t he a wonderful child?” The President returned the pencil to his pocket and shook hands with Louie before continuing up the street.

“Come over here,” shouted a member of the President’s party from across the street. “See some game trophies.” Into George Sexton’s hotel lobby the group went, where they were impressed with the heads of mountain goats and sheep, caribou, and other animals. Sexton, an old-time Alaskan, entertained the President with stories of each trophy’s history.

That afternoon Harding returned to the Henderson to write his Seattle speech with its quote from Lundblad’s poem. The entire fleet left Resurrection Bay at two o’clock the next morning for Valdez, Cordova, and then Seattle. Many Seward citizens lined the dock in the lightness of Alaska’s midnight sun to bid farewell to President and Mrs. Harding and other friends they had made during the week.

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