What made the arrival and visit most unusual is that Skagway was not on the President’s itinerary and the visit came as a surprise.
Southeast in Sepia: President Harding’s visit to Skagway 082317 AE 1 David Simpson, for the Capital City Weekly What made the arrival and visit most unusual is that Skagway was not on the President’s itinerary and the visit came as a surprise.

President Harding holds flowers as he greets children in Skagway, 1923. From the Marguerite Bone Wilcox collection, identifier ASL-P70-20. Image courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

President and Mrs. Harding in Skagway. From the President Harding's Trip to Alaska, 1923 collection, identifier ASL-P418-14. Image courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Story last updated at 8/22/2017 - 3:53 pm

Southeast in Sepia: President Harding’s visit to Skagway

It’s a pleasant July morning in 1923, as three ships pull into the Skagway harbor. The passengers are on a cruise through Alaskan waters, having left Juneau early that morning. Later in the day they plan to embark for Seward but now they want to see historic Skagway, stepping off point for the Klondike gold rush a quarter century before.

These are no ordinary sightseers, however, and this is no ordinary visit. The U.S.S. Henderson is carrying none other than the President of the United States, Warren G. Harding. For his “Voyage of Understanding” tour of Alaska, the president was accompanied by his wife, Florence and an entourage that included Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who would become president in 1929, Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work, and Territorial Governor Scott C. Bone. Trailing behind was a large party of newspapermen and photographers.

What made the arrival and visit most unusual is that Skagway was not on the President’s itinerary and the visit came as a surprise. The New York Times observed that there had been no advance warning although the local Daily Alaskan newspaper reported receiving a cable an hour before arrival. TheTimes reported, “…as the Henderson, escorted by the destroyers Corry and Hull, entered the narrow harbor…the people hurried to the waterfront. A crowd of a couple of hundred assembled to give the President a cheer when the Henderson drew near and he was seen standing on the deck.”

It is uncertain why the President decided to come to Skagway. Mayor Howard Ashley issued an invitation but had received no indication of acceptance. The Daily Alaskan reported that a deputy marshal from Skagway had been with the presidential party and had urged the itinerary change. Skagway hotel owner Harriet Pullen has also been mentioned as having possibly invited the president.

The president declined an offer of an excursion on the White Pass and Yukon Route railway due to limited time. His total stay in Skagway was to be three to four hours. According to the Daily Alaskan,“President Harding expressed a wish to meet the people, and since Mrs. Harding had been urged to visit the Pullen House if she was ever in Skagway, everyone was invited to go to the hotel to meet the President and his party. It is safe to say that all were more than pleased to accept this invitation.”

The Pullen House at that time was considered by many to be Skagway’s finest hotel. It had been built as a mansion by Skagway pioneer William Moore, and was run by early settler and energetic host, Harriet “Ma” Pullen. She supplied her guests with milk and other food from her own farm in Dyea, and had a room filled with Alaskan curios. The grounds had a scenic pond and the house had a porch, which would quickly come in handy.

Members of the presidential party were driven from the dock to the hotel in local vehicles. At the Pullen House, the Skagway mayor introduced the townspeople. Once everyone had met the president, Harding stepped onto the porch and made a short speech. As the Daily Alaskan observed, “It was indeed a most unexpected and appreciated privilege to hear the nation’s chief executive speak to the assembled group just as he might to a small informal gathering of friends. There was neither crowding nor straining of ears as residents of a large city are forced to experience. At various intervals during the speech the click of cameras was distinctly heard.”

There are two or more different versions of the speech reported in the press. This is not too surprising given that there were no full-text press releases and no television or radio coverage. According to the Daily Alaskan, the President said in part:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a very great pleasure to come to you at Skagway. Skagway originally was not on our itinerary but after our arrival we found we were such a short sailing distance away that we decided to come.

“It is a great experience to come to visit this vast territory. We have come to learn – to know the territory better. We have come to find out wherein the government is remiss, if it is remiss. It has not been convenient for all of you to come to Washington, so we have come to you.

“The longer I live; I find that the sweetest thing in the world is the friendship of a few dependable friends. Nowhere in the world is there such friendship and happiness among the people, the happiness which makes life content. You apparently seem to have much of that here. I would love to live in this atmosphere. I only hope that your every wish will come to be realized. We wish you more happiness than can come to any community in all the United States; come to any community in all the land.”

With the end of the speech, the President and Mrs. Harding were presented with a carved ivory vase, an ivory pin, a beaded moose hide table cover, and several bouquets of flowers. The party then visited the Pullen House museum.

Flowers would be the theme of the next stage of the visit. Skagway at that time was called the Garden City of Alaska and like many visitors before them, members of the presidential party visited the well-known Blanchard garden.

After seeing the Blanchard garden, President and Mrs. Harding separated. Mrs. Harding visited another garden, that of Charley Walker. President Harding headed for the Arctic Brotherhood Hall, having been asked if he wanted to join the brotherhood. He readily assented, probably considering it politically advantageous to join another fraternal organization. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft had also become members. Harding was already a Freemason and a member of the Elks and the Eagles. The President was duly installed in what was described as “One of the most impressive ceremonies ever witnessed by members of Camp Skagway, No. 1, Mother Camp of the Arctic Brotherhood of Alaska.”

President Harding was to be one of the last inductees into the brotherhood. There was no time for other members of the presidential party to become members, but they were invited to join later. While the meeting was private and the press did not attend, a 1931 article by Past Arctic Chief Dr. I. H. Moore said that the work of the Brotherhood “made a profound impression on the President and his reception of the honor was human and brotherly. In his talk he said he felt honored to know that he had traveled the same trail over which thousands of worthy brothers had passed. He dwelt upon the beauty and nobility of the teaching to which he had listened and believed that if the same spirit of brotherhood existed throughout the nation, we would be a happier and better people.”

“The mantle of his high office seemed to drop from his shoulders and he became, for the hour, just Brother Warren.” Later, the president would confide to his wife, that he had bound himself by oath never to mistreat or kick a dog or whip a horse with a sore spot on his back.

Once enrolled, the President left A. B. Hall and returned to the U.S.S. Henderson on the “jitney bus” owned by John Williams. The Daily Alaskan observed that a number of Skagway people were accorded the unexpected pleasure of riding with him.

As the President reached the head of the gangplank, the Navy Band struck up the “Star Spangled Banner” and the executive stood with bared head until the song’s completion, when he proceeded to the second deck. Mrs. Harding arrived from the Walker garden a few minutes later. The band continued to play until the ship left port. The passengers on the transport waved farewell to those on the dock.

Once President Harding left Skagway, he continued onto more Alaskan stops and drove the golden spike on the Alaska Railroad. After a visit to Vancouver, where he may have contracted ptomaine poisoning, he died in San Francisco on Aug. 2. The cause of his death was never firmly established.

This program was researched and written by David Simpson, a Student Conservation Association Intern for Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in 2012. Information for this program was supplied by the following published sources: The Alaska Weekly,date uncertain but probably late 1931-early 1932, the Chicago Daily Tribune, July 12, 1923, the Daily Alaskan, July 12, 1923, and several succeeding issues, “the Garden City of Alaska,” by Frank Norris, (2003), The New York Times, July 12, 1923, “The Skagway Story,” by Howard Clifford (1975) and “The Story of the Tour of the Skagway, Alaska Street Car,” by Martin Itjen (1934). An earlier version of this article was read over the air on KHNS, the Haines public radio station.