When Theodore Roosevelt almost visited Anacortes, Bellingham and Roche Harbor - Salish Current
April 23, 2024
When Theodore Roosevelt almost visited Anacortes, Bellingham and Roche Harbor
Richard Arlin Walker

Did he, or didn’t he? A signature of Theodore Roosevelt in a Hotel de Haro guest register is said to have been replicated after the original page was torn out and stolen. But did Roosevelt really visit the San Juan Island resort after declining invitations to Anacortes and Bellingham? (Richard Arlin Walker / Salish Current ©)

April 23, 2024
When Theodore Roosevelt almost visited Anacortes, Bellingham and Roche Harbor
Richard Arlin Walker

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Ed.: This story is part of a series of election-year articles on presidential history in the region. 

How disappointment in not hosting the 26th president morphed into a story about an event that didn’t happen.

If all had turned out as civic leaders hoped in 1903, Theodore Roosevelt would have taken a daylight trip by steamer from Seattle through the San Juan Islands and visited Anacortes, Fairhaven and Whatcom before returning to the Queen City. 

Civic leaders wanted to show off the area to the nation’s Outdoorsman in Chief, saying a visit to the North Sound would give him “personal knowledge of this great inland sea, with its wealth of grand scenery and almost limitless possibilities in the future ….”

The author/cowboy/crusader/soldier/politician was as much a pop culture icon as he was the nation’s chief executive, and locals wanted both his attention to the region and the publicity he would bring. 

Alas, the closest Roosevelt got to Skagit and Whatcom counties during his visit to Washington state was Everett. The North Sound was stunned by the shunning and in the years that followed, the line between fiction and reality blurred in the retelling of the Visit That Almost Was. 

‘The president may visit’

By the time he was 42, Roosevelt had served in the New York State Assembly, ranched in the Dakotas, reformed New York City’s police department, served as assistant secretary of the Navy, led a company of troops in the Spanish American War, written for magazines and published 19 books, and served as governor of New York and vice president of the United States.

Theooore Roosevelt’s image as adventurer/cowboy/soldier/crusader made him a favorite of caricaturists as well as early “photoshoppers.” At center, TR is depicted crossing a river on the back of a moose, the symbol of his Progressive Party, in this composite published in 1912 the New York Tribune. The image was fiction as were the composites, at left, of President Taft on an elephant, the symbol of the Republican Party; and Woodrow Wilson on a donkey, the symbol of the Democratic Party. (Library of Congress / Public domain)

TR was a favorite of caricaturists who emphasized his Cheshire-cat grin and pince-nez eye glasses, and depicted him, depending on context, as cowboy or cavalry colonel. His boundless energy mirrored that of the Evergreen State, which had become a gateway to the Pacific Rim and a leader in agriculture, fishing, timber and shipbuilding. 

Washington voted 53.4% for William McKinley for president and Roosevelt for vice president in the 1900 general election. Roosevelt became the nation’s youngest president in 1901 when McKinley was fatally shot by an assassin in a Buffalo, New York, train station. 

When Roosevelt announced in 1903 he would visit Washington state as part of an eight-week, 25-state tour, civic leaders pushed managers of the president’s schedule to use the itinerary that had been planned for McKinley in 1901. That included the aforementioned trip by steamer through the San Juan archipelago to Anacortes and Bellingham Bay. 

It couldn’t happen, managers said. Roosevelt and his party would travel 14,000 miles by train over the course of his trip, visiting 150 towns and the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone. There could be no deviation from the schedule.

The Port Townsend Leader accused Seattle of monopolizing the president’s time. Seattle appointed three committees “to take full change of the president’s movements,” the Leader reported. Those committees’ plans “would absorb every moment of the president’s time in Puget Sound ….” 

Anacortes American editors Frederick Ornes and Susan Currier Ornes had been closely following the lobbying efforts of the Anacortes Commercial Club to win Roosevelt’s visit — efforts that continued up to deadline on the newspaper’s Thursday, March 19, edition. 

The Orneses published the telegram communications between the club and Washington’s U.S. senators — Republicans Levi Ankeny and Addison G. Foster — who were helping to coordinate the president’s schedule in the Puget Sound region. 

“Cannot you arrange for President to visit Anacortes, Fairhaven and Whatcom afternoon and evening of May 23, arriving in Seattle morning of 24th?” the club telegrammed Foster. “Steamer can stop at Anacortes northbound long enough for President to meet our people, and spend evening in Whatcom.”

The club received a response as the American’s deadline neared on the evening of Wednesday, March 18. The Orneses added the report “that the President’s time being limited and that he would not unnecessarily travel at night owing to the consequent fatigue of his long tour, and that unless it could be accomplished in the daytime without interfering with the regular schedule, the managers of the trip could not be prevailed upon to accede.” 

The managers of the trip could not be prevailed upon to accede

And still, the Orneses topped the story with the headline, “President Roosevelt may visit Anacortes,” with the subhead, “Itinerary may possibly be changed.”

A souvenir pin commemorated President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1903 visit to Washington state. (Courtesy Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library. Dickinson State University)


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The record shows that Roosevelt’s train stopped in Chehalis, Centralia and Olympia on May 22. He spent that evening in Tacoma, then traveled May 23 on the steamer Spokane to Bremerton, Everett and Seattle, attending a reception at Seattle’s Grand Opera House and spending the night in the Washington Hotel, an elegant Victorian hotel that overlooked the city from the south slope of Denny Hill. 

Roosevelt departed Seattle by train on May 24 and visited Walla Walla, Ellensburg and Yakima on May 25. He visited Spokane on May 26 and then left for Idaho and points east. His visit to Washington state was over.

Sometime afterward, a signature alleged to be Theodore Roosevelt’s was entered into the register of the Hotel de Haro, in the seaside industrial village of Roche Harbor on San Juan Island. 

 ‘They talked about it all the time’

Arguably, one of those most excited about a visit from President Roosevelt would have been John Stafford McMillin, president of the Tacoma and Roche Harbor Lime Co. Like Roosevelt, McMillin was accomplished and relatively young. By the time he was 40, he had served as international grand consul of Sigma Chi Fraternity, moved from Indiana to Tacoma to practice law, became a partner in Tacoma Lime Co., managed the company’s expansion to Roche Harbor, made a run for U.S. Senate, and built a thriving company town with employee cottages, a church, general store, post office, school, gardens and farm. 

The following year, McMillin would be elected a delegate to the Republican National Convention and would join other delegates who traveled to Roosevelt’s home to inform him of his party’s nomination for reelection. 

The centerpiece of Roche Harbor was the Hotel de Haro, where McMillin, his wife and three children lived at the time. The McMillins and the company frequently hosted social gatherings and community events and had the resources to host the president of the United States in grand style.

Roosevelt would likely have been impressed by the quarries, kilns and warehouse; the fleet of ships that carried lime products to West Coast ports for use in agriculture, construction and steelmaking; and the ethnically diverse population — Coast Salish, English, Irish, Italian, Japanese — living and working side by side. Surely, he would have wanted to fish for salmon from a boat in Roche Harbor’s fleet and marvel at the twilight hues in the sky above the island-studded sea.

Many islanders who had the time and money did see the president, but not in Roche Harbor. “A special rate of $2 (equivalent to about $73 in 2024) for the round trip will be given on the steamer Lydia Thompson Saturday between all points in this county and Seattle,” the San Juan Islander reported on May 21, 1903, “on account of the visit of President Roosevelt, who is to be there Saturday afternoon and Sunday.”

McMillin’s granddaughter, Mary McMillin Cooper (1920–2012), said in 2009 of TR’s visit to the Puget Sound region that her family “talked about it all the time.” 

One thing leads to another

What about that signature in the register in the Hotel de Haro lobby? A long-time employee of what is now Roche Harbor Resort told the Journal of the San Juan Islands in 2006 that he signed Roosevelt’s name in the guest book — but did it to replace a page with Roosevelt’s signature that had been stolen.

Theodore Roosevelt “parked” here, when it housed Seattle’s Grand Opera House where the president was feted in 1903. Now a parking garage, Roosevelt would likely recognize the building’s exterior, which is original. (Google Maps/NOAA et al.)

The original signature may have been put there as a prank. Wolf Bauer (1912-2016), the outdoorsman and environmentalist who worked as an engineer for Roche Harbor in the 1930s, said in a 2006 interview that partisan humor was not uncommon in the company town. Bauer said employees once goaded McMillin by letting loose a donkey — a symbol of the Democratic Party — in front of the hotel. When Democrat Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932, McMillin hung a portrait of the new president in his office — with jail cell bars painted over it.

Neil Tarte (1927-2014) told the Journal of the San Juan Islands in 2006 that his father, Reuben, who purchased Roche Harbor in 1956 and converted it into a boating resort, pieced together Roosevelt’s spurious Roche Harbor visit based on ephemera he found: a photo of McMillin and Roosevelt standing near each other at a gathering (it was actually a 1904 photo taken during the GOP convention delegates’ visit to Oyster Bay, New York); a photo of Roosevelt on an excavator (it was actually taken at the Panama Canal, not Roche Harbor’s quarries); and a visit of a passenger steamer docking at Roche Harbor (it was actually bringing visitors to the town for a Fourth of July celebration in or after 1923).

The Presidential Suite in the hotel? It was the McMillins’ family home from 1886 to 1910. 

The Rooseveltian connection proved hard to let go of in the North Sound. The Roosevelt Neighborhood in Bellingham was named in the 26th president’s honor in about 1928. There’s a Roosevelt Road in Roche Harbor. A painting in McMillin’s Dining Room restaurant, located in the former McMillin home in Roche Harbor, depicts Roosevelt posing with McMillin and McMillin friend Robert Butchart, whose Victoria, B.C., quarries became Butchart Gardens. A sign in front of the Hotel de Haro states that President Roosevelt stayed there. 

And the signature in the hotel register remains on display, as if holding onto hope for an alternate ending. It even proposes a different date for Roosevelt’s visit — Aug. 12, 1907 — though the record shows the president was at his home in Oyster Bay on that day. 

By Richard Arlin Walker

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