On May 25, 1903, as part of a campaign to gain western support for his forthcoming bid for the presidency, President Theodore Roosevelt visits Walla Walla. While in Walla Walla, Roosevelt addresses a crowd of some 6,000 assembled before the Whitman Memorial Building on the campus of Whitman College.
Whitman College and Walla Walla
Since 1859, Whitman College and the city of Walla Walla had grown up together. In 1859, after the United States military declared that the land east of the Cascade Mountains was open for resettlement, Cushing Eells (1810-1893) obtained a charter for Whitman Seminary, a pre-collegiate academy. Eells wanted to establish a school for pioneer boys and girls that would honor the memory of his former missionary colleagues Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, who had been killed in 1847.
The same year that Eells obtained his charter, the town of Walla Walla was platted. Although Eells had wanted his school to be located on the Whitman’s mission site, Waiilatpu, about seven miles outside of Walla Walla, local supporters wanted the school located within the city limits of Walla Walla. The school opened near the center of town in 1866; in 1882, Whitman Seminary expanded into a college.
In 1903, Walla Walla was a significant agricultural center with about 12,000 residents. Whitman College, with its academy and conservatory, had 19 faculty members and 320 students. The school’s third president, Stephen B. L. Penrose (1864-1947), had spread his enthusiasm for the school across the nation and rescued Whitman from a financial crisis. He had built up its endowment, faculty, curriculum, and student body. As a member of the reception committee, Penrose lobbied for Roosevelt to deliver his address from the steps of one of Whitman’s first masonry buildings, the three-year-old Whitman Memorial Building.
Five Hours in Walla Walla
Roosevelt’s train arrived at the station in Walla Walla on May 25 at 4:30 p.m. Roosevelt made stops at Whitman College, the county courthouse, Fort Walla Walla, and the home of Senator Levi Ankeny. Roosevelt’s train left town shortly after 9:00 p.m. At the center of his visit was the address he delivered from the steps of the Whitman Memorial Building.
Surrounded by flags and bunting, Roosevelt addressed a crowd of 6,000 for about 30 minutes. He discussed the nation’s role in international politics, praised Marcus Whitman and the institution that honored him, spoke of the rising importance of Washington state and the responsibility of those who received the privilege of a college education, and encouraged his audience to keep alive the “pioneer virtues” of determination, courage, and collaboration, which were necessary in the new industrial age.
While in Walla Walla, Roosevelt officially announced that he would seek the presidency in 1904. Roosevelt’s tour through the West paid off: Western states gave him great majorities in the election that followed.