A presidential visit planned and celebrated — then forgotten - Salish Current
May 22, 2024
A presidential visit planned and celebrated — then forgotten
Richard Arlin Walker

One of many ads trying to capitalize on President Taft’s visit promoted one of today’s concerns: housing. Others included special lunch menus and a sale on cameras to take his picture. This ad was published in The Bellingham Herald on Oct. 2, 1911, page 9.

May 22, 2024
A presidential visit planned and celebrated — then forgotten
Richard Arlin Walker

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[Ed.: This article is Part 2 in a series of presidential election year stories.]

William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States, visited Bellingham, Mount Vernon and Burlington on Oct. 9, 1911 — the fourth president to visit Washington and to date the only president to visit Whatcom and Skagit counties while in office. 

It was a momentous occasion. The president was feted in Bellingham at a breakfast with state and local dignitaries, followed by a 60-car parade along flag-lined streets. In Mount Vernon and Burlington, thousands gathered — “from Sauk to the sea,” one newspaper reported — to greet the president when his train stopped at the depots there. 

President Taft spoke before a large crowd at Third and Myrtle streets in Mount Vernon on Oct. 9. “The building in the photo became the warehouse for Pacific Fruit & Produce Company in 1928 and is currently the Skagit River Brewery,” Skagit County Historical Museum archivist Mari Densmore wrote of the image. Upper-floor guests of the Hotel Windsor at 310 Myrtle Street — reportedly the city’s tallest building at the time — had a clear view. The Windsor became the President Hotel and is now the Hotel President Apartments. (Skagit County Historical Museum)

But today, Taft’s visit is little remembered.

“There was a sense of patriotism in having a national figure in what was then a small area,” said Jessica Bylund, co-author of the history book “Mount Vernon” (Arcadia Publishing, 2013). “But there’s nothing marking it. You’d think there’d be a plaque. That’s probably based on the lack of popularity of the president over time.”

Civic leaders had hoped Taft’s larger-than-life predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, would stop by during his visit to Washington in 1903. Although it didn’t happen, tributes to the Rough Rider abound: There is a Roosevelt Neighborhood in Bellingham. Roche Harbor claims TR stayed the night in the Hotel de Haro (he didn’t). And Skagit County Historical Museum archivist Mari Densmore said there’s a story that the President Hotel in Mount Vernon was so-named after Roosevelt slept there (he didn’t).

It’s hard to find tangible reminders of the president who did visit Whatcom and Skagit, but they are there. Stand at Myrtle and Third streets near the transit station in Mount Vernon and imagine the thousands of people who gathered on that cloudy October day to hear the nation’s chief executive speak from a platform built for the occasion. 

The Anacortes Street crossing where Burlington’s Great Northern Depot once stood is now a simple intersection. But Taft might recognize the depot’s replica, now the Burlington Visitor Center, one block away at 520 Fairhaven Avenue. Several homes from the period also remain within view of the crossing. 

Taft visited Washington as part of a 15,000-mile tour that took him to 30 states in 57 days. His local visits were significant on several levels. For Taft, it was a fight for his political survival. A former U.S. attorney and federal judge, he had served as governor of the Philippines, governor of Cuba and secretary of war during Roosevelt’s presidency and had Roosevelt’s blessing to succeed him in the White House in the 1908 election. But by 1911, Roosevelt had soured on Taft’s policies in foreign affairs and trade and was preparing to challenge him in 1912. 

On the local side, Bellingham was a Republican stronghold and wanted, in the words of a Bellingham Herald editorial on Oct. 1, 1911, to “wake the city up from border to border and announce in a tangible manner to William Howard Taft that he has hit a live town, a town that irrespective of politics, reciprocity or anything else, is glad to see him.” 

Hub City vs. Milk City

The Skagit County riverfront cities of Burlington and Mount Vernon were in a race for regional supremacy in which presidential bragging rights might provide an edge.

President William Howard Taft (left) and Bellingham Mayor James P. DeMattos traveled by car during the president’s visit to Bellingham on Oct. 9, 1911. Taft was feted with a breakfast and parade, but  according to news accounts his brief remarks failed to meet public expectations. (J.W. Sandison / Whatcom Museum) 

Burlington was a mere logging camp in 1882, but within eight years the Great Northern Railway and the Seattle & Northern Railway laid tracks through the western county and those tracks — Great Northern’s north-south, Seattle & Northern’s east-west — intersected in Burlington, “spawning an early nickname for the community, the Hub City,” Phil Dougherty wrote on HistoryLink.org.

By 1911 it was an incorporated city with a population of just over 1,300 with a bustling downtown on Fairhaven Avenue. An ambitious underdog, it had petitioned twice, and failed, to get the county seat moved there from Mount Vernon, where it had been since 1884. 

Mount Vernon’s city limits encompassed roughly three times more geography than Burlington’s and contained such regional attractions as the Mount Vernon Opera House (built in 1891) and the Skagit County Fairgrounds (established in 1901). And, according to Bylund and her “Mount Vernon” co-author Kari Hock, the fertile surrounding farmlands and “booming dairy industry” gave Mount Vernon the nickname “Milk City.”

All out for ‘Taft Day’

All three towns pulled out the stops to welcome the president. Bellingham declared Oct. 9 Taft Day and schools were closed for the morning to swell the crowd. 

The presidential train, with four passenger coaches, pulled into Bellingham shortly after 4 a.m. Oct. 9. Taft emerged at about 8 a.m. and “was given a lusty cheer by the crowd that was waiting to get a glimpse of him,” the San Juan Islander reported. The presidential party drove to the Chamber of Commerce building (now the site of Chuckanut Bay Distillery) for breakfast with Gov. Marion E. Hay, Bellingham Mayor James P. de Mattos, U.S. Reps. William E. Humphrey and Stanton Warburton, and others, followed by a 15-minute public reception. 

A 60-car procession then escorted the president to a public ground where he spoke before an estimated 15,000 people. (A proposal to transport Taft beneath an arch made of Bellingham salmon cans did not come to fruition.) 

The Bellingham Herald published the generous menu for the breakfast held in President Taft’s honor Oct. 9, 1911, in the new Chamber of Commerce building (now occupied by Chuckanut Distillery). Taft customarily ate a large breakfast but, according to a historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, such caloric intake often made him sluggish the rest of the morning. In Bellingham, Taft cut his post-breakfast remarks short and retired to his train car. (Whatcom Museum)     

“Bellingham sees first president,” a headline read above the United Press story on page 1 of The Seattle Star’s Oct. 9 edition:

“Massed on Garden St[reet] were thousands of school children armed with flowers, flags and sprigs of fir and cedar. Farther on, the president was assailed with college yells from the throats of the high- and normal-school students. The president was tendered a breakfast at the Chamber of Commerce, after which he received one hundred and fifty prominent men and women in the chamber reception rooms. He was then taken for a drive and finally delivered a speech in the open air. The president’s train left at noon for Burlington and Mount Vernon.”

‘From Sauk to the sea’

Skagit County had also been rallying to impress the president. “The people of Burlington are making great preparations for President Taft‘s reception,” The Anacortes American reported on Sept. 28. “The Anacortes people are making arrangements to run a special train on Taft day. Also efforts are being made to hold the Rockport and Anacortes locals until after the president’s train pulls out. This will give the people from Sauk to the sea a chance to see and hear the president and get back home inside of eight hours.”

The Anacortes American, referring to Burlington as “the hub of Skagit County,” added, “The president will certainly know when his train pulls out that Burlington, Skagit County, Washington, is on the map.”

Taft’s train stopped at the Burlington depot at the Anacortes Street crossing. Among those to greet the president: Anacortes Mayor Herbert H. Soule, who presented Taft with a 40-pound salmon, The Anacortes American reported. Soule received the following message the next day from Taft’s secretary, Charles D. Hilles:

“My Dear Mayor: The president wishes me to thank you, and through you, ex-Mayor Odlin, for your thoughtfulness in putting aboard his car the enormous salmon, a part of which he ate last night with great relish. He deeply appreciates your courtesy.”

Thousands more Skagitonians greeted Taft when his train stopped at Myrtle and Third streets in Mount Vernon. Taft was introduced by state Rep. N. J. Moldstad, who was president of the local First National Bank.

After brief remarks, Taft reboarded his train and continued south to Seattle. Over the next few days, he would visit Tacoma and Olympia, tour the Bremerton Navy Yard, play a round of golf — his favorite pastime — at Seattle Golf Club, and tour a glacier field on Mount Rainier.

The Tacoma Times published this photo of the jovial President William Howard Taft during his visit to the region in 1911. Public reaction to the president’s speeches were “meh,” and The Tacoma Times pulled no punches in its assessment of the president’s visit. (Washington Digital Newspapers)       

The Anacortes American reported that the president was now forgiven for mispronouncing “Skagit” during his 1909 visit to the county’s exhibit at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle. But those wanting to hear him comment on the major issues of the day — a trade deficit with Asia, a weakened dollar, federal spending and immigration — went home unimpressed.

What happened?

Within the pages of the Mount Vernon Herald “there are comments that [the community] expected much more out of his speech,” Densmore said. “It was brief and they felt they had made a huge effort for a return they didn’t expect.” 

In personality, Taft was no Roosevelt. Roosevelt, rancher/author/soldier, was adventurous and high energy (according to the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historical Site, he drank up to a gallon of coffee a day). Taft, lawyer/jurist/administrator, was large in body and appetite and customarily ate large breakfasts that left him sluggish and inactive for most of the morning. 

In Bellingham, Taft spoke briefly about the Panama Canal, which was nearing completion and would open the Atlantic to Pacific Northwest exports, but “complained of being tired and as soon as he finished he was driven to his private coach,” the San Juan Islander reported.

“The President’s speech was a disappointment in a way,” the Islander continued. “He did not talk as long as it was expected he would nor did he touch upon the pertinent questions of the present time.”

The Bellingham Herald made the best case it could, reminding its readers the next day that “it was the town and not the president that sought the honor” of his visit.

Roosevelt carried Whatcom and Skagit counties in the 1912 election; nationwide, Taft received eight electoral votes to Woodrow Wilson’s 435 and Roosevelt’s 88. Taft’s presidency was notable for tariff reform, monopoly-busting lawsuits, regulation of railroad rates, and constitutional amendments mandating a federal income tax and the direct election of senators. But after he was named chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1921, Taft wrote, “I don’t remember that I ever was President.”

Densmore, the Skagit museum archivist, said Taft’s visit should not be forgotten. “Whatever moves people at the time is remembered and for whatever reason this was not,” Densmore said of Taft’s visit. “Nobody talks about it, but it’s very important.”

Also read Part 1: “When Theodore Roosevelt almost visited Bellingham, Anacortes and Roche Harbor,” Salish Current, April 23, 2024

— By Richard Arlin Walker

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