On May 25, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) visits North Yakima. Theodore Roosevelt is the 26th President of the United States (1901-1909) and the first president to visit the Yakima Valley. Residents from throughout the area flock to the Northern Pacific Depot to greet the president.
On June 17, 1902, at Roosevelt's urging, the United States Congress had passed the Reclamation Act of 1902 (also called the Newlands Act), the first reclamation act empowering the federal government to undertake irrigation projects and thus reclaim arid lands. In the Yakima Valley, small-scale irrigation projects had been undertaken beginning in 1852. The Sunnyside Canal, by 1903 owned by the Washington Irrigation Company, funneled Yakima River water from Sunnyside to Prosser and was the Yakima Valley's largest irrigation project to date. Yakima Valley residents welcomed federal funding for increased irrigation and Theodore Roosevelt's strong pro-reclamation stance made him a very welcome visitor.
North Yakima Prepares
A few days before the promised visit, residents of North Yakima and surrounding towns bustled to prepare a proper welcome. The Yakima Herald proudly called North Yakima's executive planning committee "of no inferior ability" to the committees planning for Roosevelt's visits to Seattle and Tacoma (May 20, 1903). The welcome plan included visiting bands from neighboring communities, elaborate decorations throughout the city, a grandstand draped with stars-and-stripes bunting. The Herald assured its readers that North Yakima Mayor Jack Shaw, who was to ride through town with President Roosevelt, "is said to have saved up several good jokes which it is his intention to tell the president ... there is every reason to believe that the president will be highly entertained during his short visit in the city" (May 20, 1903).
As the Yakima Valley's most important crop, apples were slated to be the star ambassador for the region during the presidential visit. The Yakima Herald explained the plan:
"The president and his party will be presented with several boxes of Yakima's choicest apples. The Yakima County Horticultural Union has taken the matter in hand and are now busy searching for the handsomest varieties to be found. L. B. Kenyon has been delegated to prepare and pack the apples and he desires any who have a few extra choice to leave them at his place on Nob Hill. The apples will be wrapped separately in paper wrappers on which will be printed the following: 'Yakima Valley Apples, Grown by Irrigation. Presented by Yakima County Horticultural Union ... Those boxes of choice apples will doubtless strike tender chords in the hearts of all and be the cause of many surprising expressions concerning the wonderful results of irrigation" (May 20, 1903).
By Boat and By Train
Roosevelt and his entourage had arrived in Seattle by steamer on May 23. During his visit Roosevelt emphasized the importance of conservation, the importance of Alaska, and the importance of Seattle's key role as a gateway to Alaska. After two days touring Seattle and Everett, feted and flocked by enormous crowds, Roosevelt boarded the Presidential train at 11:30 p.m. on May 24, 1903, and made his way overnight to North Yakima.
Roosevelt's train arrived at the Northern Pacific depot in North Yakima at 10:30 in the morning. The Yakima Herald reported that the crowd gathered to welcome Roosevelt was 10,000 strong -- an amazing statistic for a town of 3,500 -- explaining that "never before in the history of this city's existence was congregated within its corporate limits such a mass of humanity" (May 27, 1903).
The Hyas Tyee
The president was taken by open carriage through streets festooned with bunting and lined with flag-waving citizens to the corner of Natches and Yakima avenues where the speaker's stand had been erected. Washington Governor Henry McBride (1856-1937), state Senator Levi Ankeny (1844-1921), R-Walla Walla, and Northern Pacific Railroad President Charles Sanger Mellen (1852-1927) accompanied Roosevelt. The Yakima Herald reported that the crowd greeted the president with "deafening shouts (of) 'Cowboy President,' 'The Hero of San Juan Hill,' 'Teddy,' and various other synonyms by which Mr. Roosevelt is commonly known to the populace" (May 27, 1903). The skies were clear and the sun shone warmly. North Yakima's schoolchildren, released from the classroom to witness the great event, were shepherded together by their teachers, who distributed a thousand flags.
Roosevelt began his remarks by singling out veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic and those who fought with him in the Spanish American War. He touched on the importance of education, stating "nothing that can be done by this generation will in the end avail anything if the next generation is not of the quality to take advantage of it."
Roosevelt's next remarks to North Yakima centered on irrigation. The Irrigation Act, he said, was "the beginning of a policy more important to this country, more important to this country's internal development, than any other since the Homestead Law." He moved on to more general remarks about the importance of character, concluding with his conviction that Americans possessed "the quality of decency, the quality of courage, and the quality of sane and healthy common sense" (The Yakima Herald, May 27, 1903).
The Herald continued:
"While leaving the speakers stand the president, who up to this time had refused to shake hands with any of the people, came face to face with several of the Yakima Indians gaily bedecked in their war paint and eagle feathers, and wearing many colored blankets. They had come to see the 'Great Father of the white man, the Hyas Tyee,' and in recognition of this fact the president extended his hand, which was heartily shaken by the aborigines" (May 27, 1903).
Money Well Spent
Roosevelt's visit was very brief. At 11:15 he re-boarded his train and departed for Walla Walla. As the caboose of the Northern Pacific Presidential Special receded, North Yakimans, their streets still swathed in hundreds of yards of red, white, and blue bunting, must have heaved a collective deep breath.
North Yakima and the surrounding towns had pooled together $450 to pay for decorations and erect the grandstand, amounting to $10 for every minute of the visit. In what was perhaps an attempt to assuage a nagging suspicion that they might have overspent, The Yakima Herald opined, "Nothing of an unpleasant nature occurred during the morning to in any way mar the pleasure of the occasion ... and every one feels that the time and expense gone to in arranging for even so brief a reception was well spent" (May 27, 1903).