W. Paul Reeve
History Blazer July 1995
President Warren G. Harding’s 1923 visit to Utah was part of a broader tour of the western United States designed to bring him “closer to the people and their conditions.” After touring Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and other states, he proceeded to Alaska, his primary destination, and became the first president to visit that territory since its purchase in 1867. Tragedy unexpectedly struck the tour, however, when the president became ill and the trip ended abruptly with Harding’s death in San Francisco on August 2, 1923.
Harding’s train the “Presidential Alaska Special” arrived in Ogden on the morning of June 26 to the cheers of an enthusiastic crowd gathered at Union Station. President and Mrs. Harding and their entourage were then escorted to Lester Park where nearly 2,000 persons waited to greet them. Harding commented that he had not anticipated seeing so many people at such an early hour—8 A.M.—and then briefly addressed the eager Ogdenites before traveling on to Salt Lake City. All along the highway between Ogden and the state’s capital city people had gathered to greet the president, including scores of flag-waving children. One tiny Ogden girl, carried by her father, even approached the president’s car and handed him a bouquet of roses. Harding eventually arrived at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City where a huge crowd waited in anticipation. The president was clearly overwhelmed with the Utah welcome and told the cheering throng: “Words are unable to express my appreciation of the warm friendly spirit of this reception.” Some of their enthusiasm may have sprung from the fact that Utahns had helped to elect Harding in November 1920, giving him some 82,000 votes to 57,000 for losing Democrat James M. Cox. Then, too, as a U. S. senator, Harding had endorsed causes popular with many Utahns, including woman suffrage, the Volstead Act’s provisions for enforcing prohibition—passed over Wilson’s veto, and anti-strike legislation.
After speaking at Liberty Park the president and his party moved on to the Hotel Utah where children bearing armloads of flowers lined both sides of the hotel entrance. Later that afternoon Harding and Mormon church president Heber J. Grant were partnered for a round of golf and handily defeated their opponents. The president toured Fort Douglas where he received a 21-gun salute, and he was treated to a private organ recital at the Mormon Tabernacle. The musical offerings were wide ranging and included the Mormon hymn “Come, Come Ye Saints,” a selection from Tristan and Isolde, and a personal favorite of Mrs. Harding’s, “A Perfect Day.” That evening the president returned to the Tabernacle where he delivered a political speech on the subject of “Taxation and Expenditure” to an overflow crowd.
The presidential party continued its dizzyingly paced tour as it boarded the “Alaska Special” and set out for southern Utah where the group planned to visit Zion National Park the next day. The morning of June 27 enthusiastic Utahns again greeted President Harding, this time at Cedar City. From there the delegation continued south in thirty-two highly polished cars furnished by Cedar City residents. All along the route the official entourage passed scores of friendly southern Utahns attracted by the chance to see the country’s president in person.
In Toquerville townsfolk had spent much of the previous night carrying buckets of water to sprinkle the three-quarters of a mile of road that dissected their town in order to prevent any dust from stirring when the president’s car passed over it. Fortunately, the road remained dust free and, as planned, the presidential caravan stopped in Toquerville for a rest, giving Harding a chance to address the pioneers of that area. As he spoke, local residents showed their appreciation for the honor of having the president of the United States in their town by loading each official car in the entourage with a brimming basket of prize Dixie fruit.
After winding through several other small towns the group finally arrived in Zion Canyon where they found a number of the region’s best horses waiting. President Harding donned leather chaps, tied a kerchief around his neck, and, joined by Heber J. Grant, Governor Charles R. Mabey, Senator Reed Smoot, and other dignitaries, proceeded on horseback up the scenic canyon.
After enjoying the beauty of southern Utah the party returned to Cedar City where Mrs. Harding told the people how thoroughly she had enjoyed the day: “I am glad I came . . . I would not have missed this trip for anything.” The presidential party then boarded its train and headed for its next scenic destination, Yellowstone National Park.
Unfortunately, before President Harding’s western tour ended he was stricken ill and died of a probable heart attack. News of his death came as a shock and Utah joined the rest of the nation in mourning the loss of its leader. On August 10, 1923, while Harding was laid to rest in Marion, Ohio, many Utah stores, businesses, and factories closed in deference to the nation’s fallen leader. In Salt Lake City several memorial ceremonies were held, including those at Fort Douglas, the Cathedral of the Madeleine, and St. Mark’s Cathedral. Crowds also thronged the Mormon Tabernacle for services to honor the memory of the president who had spoken to a much less solemn congregation in that same edifice only six weeks earlier.
Sources: Deseret News, June 25, 26, 27, 28, 1923, August 10,1923; Salt Lake Tribune, June 27, 1923; Millennial Star, August 2, 1923.