While personal and political problems marred President Warren G. Harding’s administration, all that seemed forgotten when he visited Tacoma on July 5, 1923. Less than a month later, his sudden death shocked the nation.
Elected in 1920 to replace Woodrow Wilson, the Republican politician promised a “return to normalcy” after World War I. In an effort to boost his reputation before his 1924 reelection campaign, he embarked on a tour of the West on June 20, 1923.
Tacoma was thrilled to be on his itinerary. Guy C. Kelley, a Republican national committee representative, led a large group of Tacoma businessmen and civic leaders in planning the President’s visit.
The event was promoted as a “grand double-header,” capping off massive Fourth of July celebrations. The ship that would take Harding to Alaska, the USS Henderson, arrived on July 3, fresh from an overhaul at the Bremerton Naval Yards. As soon as the ship arrived, the Tacoma Rose Society, Tacoma Florists’ Association and Metro Parks began decorating its staterooms with flowers that local floral shops and hobbyists had donated.
Harding Arrives in Tacoma
The committee’s plans fell apart when the President’s train was late after making an unscheduled stop in Centralia to lay flowers at the Centralia Massacre monument. A light rain drizzled as people waited at the Union Pacific Station.
The welcoming committee greeted the President and his party, including Washington Governor Louis Hart, who had joined them in Idaho. The crowd cheered as the President’s automobile pulled out of the station. Harding rode in an open car. “We were prepared to find rain in the Puget Sound country,” Laura Work, wife of Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work, said, “So we didn’t mind it in the least. The rain isn’t really wet, you know.”
Tacoma Hotel Reception
The caravan of ten cars, led by a military escort from Fort Lewis and a police motorcycle brigade, arrived at the Tacoma Hotel for a public reception. About 3,500 people greeted the President and his party. Newspapers celebrated the diversity of people who met him, including Black, Indigenous, Filipinos, Japanese and various European immigrants.
Visitors included Mrs. F.E. Dille, who met him as a baby in Blooming Grove, Ohio and 100-year-old Captain Rev. Robert Stubbs. As a national leader of the Girl Scouts, Lou Hoover, wife of Herbert Hoover, visited with Tacoma Council leaders.
Harding and his wife were also presented with many gifts. Todd Dry Dock and Construction Corporation presented him with a souvenir paperweight crafted from tools used to build three scout cruisers locally.
With no time for “luncheon,” the party continued to Cushman Veterans’ Hospital, this time in cars closed due to the rain. Confusion reigned when people cheered car no.1, the pilot car, rather than Harding’s car no.3. “Hello, girls!” Mrs. Harding greeted twenty uniformed candy dippers from Brown and Halley.
They visited the hospital’s 250 patients, including three men recently transferred to the Red Cross House. The Florists’ Association donated carnations for Mrs. Harding to give to patients. She spent extra time in the tuberculosis ward. Her son, by a previous marriage, had recently died of the disease. Mrs. Harding captured the hearts of Tacomans, who hailed her as an “example of highest ideals of womanhood.”
Harding’s Stadium Speech
Twenty-five thousand people packed the stadium at Stadium High School for Harding’s speech. Stores and businesses closed so employees could attend. Children, led by Boy and Girl Scouts, had to stand. A military band from Vancouver gave a concert from noon until the President arrived at 1 p.m. The ground near the temporary platform, adorned in white and blue flowers, had been carefully swept for nails from construction lest it punctures a tire. “That’s Laddie Boy!” shouted a kid seeing a dog milling around the platform before the President’s arrival, referencing the President’s beloved dog.
Governor Hart spoke first. “Mr. President,” he said, “the people of this section of the state, many of whom may never have the opportunity of seeing or hearing you again, have traveled a long way to be here today.”
Harding gave a speech discussing policies such as the merchant marine and praising Tacoma for its hospitality.
Harding’s Goodbye to Tacoma
Harding’s party left the Stadium at 2 p.m. for the USS Henderson. The USS Tennessee fired off a salute as the crew stood at attention on deck as the ship set sail. It swung by the stadium. Harding waved his hat goodbye to the cheers of the crowd. The Hardings, as the paper said, had “conquered Tacoma.”
President Harding’s Death
Harding continued to Alaska. He came back to Washington and fell ill visiting Seattle on July 27. The President died at a San Francisco hotel on August 2.
The nation was shocked. “Tacoma’s head bowed,” read headlines. They were cheered by a letter from Mrs. Harding, postmarked two hours before the President’s death, thanking young Rector Watson and his mother for flowers. Watson had been in St. Joseph’s Hospital since December with a broken leg.
Clubs and churches held special services, and a public memorial was held at the stadium on August 10. Tacoma observed five minutes of silence at 1 o’clock, stopping streetcars. KGB radio hosted a memorial service that evening, playing records of two of Harding’s most famous speeches.
Calvin Coolidge, then Vice President, took office as President and provided a welcome break from the scandal-ridden Harding years. While historians have taken a kinder view of Harding’s legacy in more recent years, especially his support for racial equality, his presidency has often been overlooked, including his visit to Tacoma and the West in 1923.