One hundred years ago on July 10, then-President of the United States Warren G. Harding visited Juneau. He was on his 1923 “Voyage of Understanding,” a journey to learn more about Alaska’s territory, its people and its resources.
Overshadowing the 29th president’s successful cross-country train trip and Alaskan voyage is the mystery surrounding his death less than three weeks after being in Juneau.
The president’s visit was excitedly anticipated by residents. Days before his arrival Juneau people decorated their businesses and homes with colorful bunting streamers and American flags. Telephone poles and light poles were wrapped with fresh evergreen boughs. Photos of the president were displayed in shop windows. Demand exceeded supply. Plans were laid for receptions, parties and a parade through town.
President and Mrs. Harding’s Navy transport ship, the U.S.S. Henderson, and its destroyer escorts Cory and Bull steamed up Gastineau Channel on the morning of July 10. They had cruised past Taku Glacier the day before. The ships were met south of Thane by members of the city’s organizing committee traveling aboard the small steamer Alma. As the Henderson sailed past Douglas, “throngs” cheered on the wharf and the cannery whistle blasted. When the ships passed the Alaska Juneau mill at 9:30 a.m. there was a “presidential salute of 21 discharges of dynamite,” wrote the Alaska Daily Empire. The boats motored together to Juneau’s main downtown dock located roughly where the library parking garage stands today. In addition to hundreds of residents, local dignitaries greeted the party.
Once the famous passengers disembarked, many vehicles formed a long parade through town to the Governor’s House.
“The procession was wildly cheered by the crowds which lined the walks on the entire line of the parade,” according to the Empire, and “which was the largest ever, extending for blocks.”
Leading the parade through Juneau was a military detachment from Port Chilkoot Barracks (Haines) and Marines from the Henderson. Next the Kake Indian brass band was followed by President Harding’s car with his wife riding along with then-Gov. Scott Bone and his wife. They were escorted by an honor guard of the American Legion. Eight cars carried some of the presidential party, followed by vehicles transporting municipal, territorial and federal officials, and newspapermen. The procession concluded with the “local Indian band and the Boy Scouts.”
The cavalcade made a circuitous tour through downtown. The long parade drove up South Franklin Street (then called lower Front Street) to the corner of Front and Franklin where all turned onto Front Street for one block to Seward Street. They proceeded up Seward to Third then east to Gold Street, up to Fifth Street, then Harris Street to Seventh. After a few strides on flat ground, they turned down Main Street to Calhoun, finally ending at the Governor’s House. Along the way children dressed in white greeted the president at every intersection with flowers. For the final two blocks the parade rode through an “aisle of children in white” who had strewn wildflowers on the pavement to welcome the president and his party. From the front porch of the Governor’s House, Harding briefly addressed a huge crowd of rain-soaked well wishers.
The president had a busy schedule for his 24 hours in Juneau. After his speech Harding toured Mendenhall Glacier. A famous photo shows the president and Gov. Bone standing with others in a downpour. In the background a separate gushing waterfall is fed by the glacier which dominates the barren landscape. The icy terminus is visible with a different vast waterfall draining the ice mass. The glacier face was much closer (1.5 miles) than Mendenhall is today. Access to the glacier was by a completely different route then. The site of the current visitor center was under hundreds of feet of ice in 1923.
One hundred years later that same waterfall trickles sporadically down the steep mossy slope adjacent to the Trail of Time. It no longer drains the glacier. When heavy rain falls, the rocky slope faucets small chutes of water. Mostly it just seeps. It is located northwest of the CCC Shelter. Several hundred feet south, the U.S. Forest Service has posted an interpretive sign at the site where the presidential party posed for their photograph. It is almost hidden in the brush on a short spur of the historic Trail of Time.
Meals, receptions and meetings kept the First Couple and their party engaged. Three Cabinet members traveled with the president to glean more information about Alaska and its resources. They were Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work, Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who would later become the country’s 31st president.
On the morning of July 11, the U.S.S. Henderson departed for the voyage north. There was a brief unplanned stop in Skagway with a meal hosted by Harriet “Ma” Pullen at her renowned hotel Pullen House located near the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway tracks.
After the ship docked at Seward a train carried the presidential party north. A major celebration was held for President Harding in Nenana where he drove the ceremonial “golden spike” that joined the north and south portions of the Alaska Railroad connecting Seward to Fairbanks.
Warren Harding was a popular president at the time of his Voyage of Understanding according to biographer John Dean (yes, THAT John Dean of Watergate fame). But Harding’s long-term reputation is tainted by scandals and corruption that emerged after his death.
The problems were perpetrated by two notable appointees.
Investigations were underway prior to Harding’s death into misuse of federal funds by Charles Forbes, the head of the Veterans Bureau. Most notably, former Secretary of Interior Albert Fall was being investigated for giving favorable leasing terms to his friends for federal oil reserves set aside for national security in Wyoming. This became known as the famed Teapot Dome scandal which eclipses many good aspects of Harding’s tenure.
Perhaps the greatest conspiracy involves circumstances of Harding’s death in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco on Aug. 2, 1923, three weeks after he visited Juneau. Rumors swirl even today that the president’s wife may have poisoned him or that he ate bad seafood from Alaska. None of these causes are true.
Prior to his death, reports indicate that Harding failed to sufficiently recover from a serious bout of influenza and pneumonia that he had suffered months earlier. Those conditions weakened him, yet he kept up strenuous work schedules resulting in chest pains, erratic blood pressure, difficulty breathing and sleeplessness.
Harding’s Alaska tour invigorated him, however. He “spent hours” on the Henderson’s deck admiring the scenery and commenting on the beauty to fellow passengers. He claimed the people of the Territory of Alaska were “as sturdy and stalwart as the scenery.”
Though Harding rallied on his voyage, people who knew him well noticed his weakened appearance when he arrived in Vancouver, British Columbia, at the end of the trip. After a speech in Seattle the president was too ill to keep his schedule of events in Portland. His special presidential train bypassed that city and rolled straight to San Francisco where he “was met by well-known cardiologists.”
At 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 2, 1923 the president was resting in bed. Two nurses were in the hotel room with the president and Mrs. Harding who was reading an encouraging article in the Saturday Evening Post about the president’s accomplishments.
“That’s good! Go on, read some more,” were Harding’s final words. The president shuddered, collapsed and died. On Aug. 3, 1923 the Empire’s front page was headlined “President Harding Dies Suddenly.” The official statement at the time said the cause of death was cerebral apoplexy, or a stroke. Later assessments suggest a heart attack.
The presidential train returned to Washington, D.C., bearing Harding’s body and his entourage. “An estimated 9 million people from factories and farms, schools and shops, in the cities and in the fields, spontaneously appeared along the railroad tracks to silently — and often in tears — pay last respects to a president they admired,” writes Dean.
The depth of his appointees’ corruption emerged after Harding’s death. “Within a few months of Harding’s death the now-famous Teapot Dome scandal erupted and Harding’s fall began,” writes Dean. Calvin Coolidge became the next president.