The first president to visit Olympia came underneath the cloud of a failing presidency.
Rutherford B. Hayes arrived in Olympia in October 1880, even before Washington was a state, as part of a massive 70-day western tour. Under an article titled “the Cause of Mr. Hayes’ visit” the Washington Standard (a hometown Olympia newspaper) described the president’s inability to prevent political machines from taking control of the national bureaucracy. So, the paper claimed through a re-printed article, the President retreated to a multi-state tour.
While the political description of the president is featured on the front page and takes an entire column, the actual visit is summarized on page five of the same edition in one short paragraph.
While the first presidential visit to Olympia seemed boisterous enough (bunting, cannons, three speeches, a public reception), the treatment it got from the Standard was not.
Twenty-three years later President Teddy Roosevelt received, if not a better welcome, at least better coverage.
Not yet into his second full year after replacing President William McKinley, Roosevelt was, like Hayes, making a tour of the western United States, which included a stop in Olympia.
The Presidential reception last Friday passed off without the slightest jar as to the precedence or ripple of discontent as to arrangement of the many details for making it a complete success. The weather, to begin with, was ideal, the people radiant with smiles and overflowing with good humor.
President Roosevelt came into town by rail and was whisked to the governor’s office in the old capitol building, and then delivered a 40 minute speech to a crowd of thousands in Sylvester Park. A special train would even bring people in from Grays Harbor and the entire festive feeling for the day would be continued by a special game played in the afternoon by Olympia’s new minor league baseball team.
Said Roosevelt of Olympia during his visit: “You have one of the prettiest little cities I have ever visited. It is a delightful place for a home. I have been greatly surprised and gratified. I shall never forget Olympia and her generous people.”
While President Teddy Roosevelt all but handpicked his successor, William Taft, by the time Taft visited Olympia their relationship was on the rocks. While the tensions were cool earlier in Taft’s presidency, by 1911, the rift moved above the surface with Roosevelt openly criticizing Taft.
Taft’s visit to Olympia seemed much more sedate than Roosevelt’s. It might be that he only came for an hour, but the highlight of his trip was to be a friendly and private reception:
The sitting room was decorated with red cactus dahlias, the hall with yellow dahlias, and the dining room with pink roses. The luncheon was served in bouffee fashion, only the President, Governor Hay and Mrs. Hay being seated. An incident in which the President displayed the ready wit for which he is celebrated, developed when Mrs. J. W. Foster accidentally brushed the President’s hand with a hot coffee pot.
“O, I beg your pardon,” gasped Mrs. Foster. “I didn’t mean to burn you.”
“I’ll remember you warmly Mrs. Foster,” replied the beaming statesman.
When Franklin Roosevelt came to town he was just wrapping up a tour of the Olympic Peninsula when he stopped here. The point of the trip was to research and also promote the idea of what would eventually become Olympic National Park.
President Roosevelt entered Washington from Victoria BC, coming across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Port Angeles. He stayed the night at Lake Crescent. The next day, October 1, 1937, he completed a whirlwind trip around Olympia Peninsula. By the time the president reached Grays Harbor, 50,000 people lined his route. Rain marred the trip, but apparently did not beat back the crowds.
The rains finally parted after the President entered Thurston County:
A rainbow curved upward from the northeast horizon as the President stopped three miles outside Olympia to leave a sedan and enter his open car, unused during the day because of heavy rain that fell during nearly all the drive around the western section of the Olympic Loop Highway.
The president really only stayed in Olympia for a few minutes, reaching the capitol at 5:30 p.m., stopping at the governor’s mansion, and then getting to Fort Lewis by 6:30 p.m.
Again, eight years later, another Roosevelt successor would come to town.
Just months into his presidency and a month after the victory in Europe, President Harry Truman used Olympia as a homebase for a four day visit to Washington State. Truman was apparently in Washington mostly for rest and relaxation. But from the contemporary news coverage, he was waiting to swoop into San Francisco while an early meeting of the United Nations was taking place.
Unsure of the results of the meeting, Truman wanted to stay close to the west coast while the future of the UN was being determined. He found a helpful host in Governor Mon Wallgren, with whom he had served in (and had been close friends) the Senate up until that January. Wallgren had been elected governor and Truman became president upon Roosevelt’s death.
This was not Truman’s first visit to Wallgren’s home. While in the Senate together, Truman had visited the Wallgren family home in Everett.
Short of actual official meetings, Wallgren and Truman toured the state, going fishing off Anderson Island, visiting Mount Rainier and Hood Canal. From all reports, Truman’s vacation was an actual vacation, making it different than all other presidential visits to Olympia which lasted less than a day.
Also different was Truman flying in by air on a nonstop flight from Washington DC to the Olympia airport. This change in the type of travel foretold a significant drop in the president coming to Olympia.
The decline in visits to Olympia since Truman has been mostly impacted by transportation. As a state capitol, Olympia has almost always had a lower profile than even the second tier of Washington cities. It has also remained fairly convenient to those higher profile cities. Even if the governor wanted to meet a visiting president, he could easily make the trip north to the more populated parts of Puget Sound.
For presidents though, it was much easier to stop in on Olympia when one had to go through the state capital by train rather than fly into Seattle by air. Once air replaced rail as the primary form of transportation, presidential visits to Olympia dried up.