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Across the Fence: Roosevelt’s campaign tour of the west
May 31, 2012 M. Timothy Nolting   

Read more by M. Timothy Nolting

Photo by Julius Leschinsky/Grand Island Daily Independent President Theodore Roosevelt breaks ground on the new Carnegie Library in Grand Island on April 27th, 1903.

Decoration Day, 1903, Cheyenne Wyoming; President Theodore Roosevelt addressed the members of the Grand Army of the Republic, consisting of fellow veterans of the Spanish American War. Ninety-eight years later, at the request of his great-grandson Tweedy Roosevelt, our 26th President of these United States would posthumously receive The Congressional Medal of Honor for leading the heroic charge at the Battle of San Juan Hill.

Regardless of one’s political views, I am certain all would agree that Theodore Roosevelt was a man of adventure, courage, high moral principals and tireless energy. The story of his life is among those of the great men who dedicated much of their lives to the service of this country. Known as “The Cowboy President,”

Theodore Roosevelt was indeed a cowboy in Montana and North Dakota where he learned the trade and later became a rancher. In the mid 1880s, both his wife and his mother died on Valentine’s Day, the day his first daughter was born. He secluded himself in the rigors of ranch life until the devastating blizzard of 1886, known as ‘The Great Die-up,’ ended his ranching career and found him returning to the east where he redirected his energy in service to his country.

To say that he was ‘tough’ is an understatement. His courage and leadership during the Spanish American War is widely recognized. Perhaps less remembered is the attempted assassination by a Milwaukee saloonkeeper on October 14, 1912.

While campaigning for the presidency under the ‘Bull Moose Party,’ Roosevelt was shot in the chest. The wound was not fatal, but the surgical removal of the bullet was deemed too risky. Despite his wound, Roosevelt continued his campaign and delivered his scheduled speech. The bullet remained lodged in his chest for the remainder of his life.

However, let’s back up to 1903. On the front page of the Grand Island Daily Independent, dated April 1, 1903, the lead story told of President Theodore Roosevelt’s planned campaign tour of the western United States. The tour would encompass twenty-two states and two territories over the span of sixty-six days covering over 14,000 miles.

The presidential train would leave Washington and head toward Yellowstone through Chicago. After a time in Yellowstone the entourage would turn south-east to St. Louis and then travel the southern Union Pacific route through Nebraska and Colorado to California. Roosevelt’s campaign trail would take him through Grand Island, Nebraska on his westbound travels and also on his eastbound return to the Capitol.

The folks of Grand Island were swept up in a flurry of activity as they prepared for Roosevelt’s arrival on the 27th of April. Committee’s were formed for the arrangement of refreshments, decorations of red, white and blue bunting, building of a platform where the president would view the parade and address his supporters.

Adequate security had to be arranged, and the local band, veterans, firemen and police force readied for the event. The route that the parade would take had to be determined, streets and sidewalks cleaned and decorated. The parade, of course, would have to be a grand one and would include local dignitaries who would accompany the president. Being the ‘cowboy president’ it was assumed that Roosevelt would ride horseback in the parade and so a suitable mount had to be found.

There were many local ranchers who volunteered to provide horses for the parade on the condition that the President would ride the horse that they would lend. Eventually enough horses were found for those who would ride as well as a suitably spirited steed for Roosevelt himself.

At this time, the city of Grand Island had recently received a $10,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation for the building of a new library. The library committee briefly entertained the notion that perhaps the President would dedicate the site by breaking the ground with the first shovelful of sod. After further consideration it was determined that a groundbreaking ceremony just wouldn’t fit into the busy schedule and so the idea was dropped.

The President’s train arrived just a little behind schedule and was met by Grand Island Mayor Cleary and others. During the brief introductions, while President Roosevelt passed out cigars to the men gathered, Mayor Cleary inquired if the President might be interested in participating in the libraries groundbreaking. Roosevelt was pleased with the idea, as it would give him something of a local flavor to include in his speech to the citizens of Grand Island. So, it was a last minute undertaking that led to the groundbreaking of Grand Island’s Carnegie Library to be done by the President of the United States.

Following the festivities of the day, the Daily Independent reported that President Roosevelt was “delighted with his sojourn in Grand Island“ and that “he didn’t seem to mind the high winds and blowing dust that prevailed during his visit.”

After leaving Grand Island, the presidential train must have gone west to Sidney then southwesterly toward Julesburg, Colorado then to Denver. I have not been able to find a detailed itinerary of Roosevelt’s western tour but I did find that he was in Denver on May the 4th of 1903 where a parade was held in his honor. While in that part of the country, Roosevelt joined a group of cowboys in Hugo, Colorado for a spring roundup, chuck wagon meal. From Colorado he continued west and was in Portland, Oregon on May the 21st.

In the later days of May he enjoyed a short camping trip with California’s John Muir at Yosemite. It was this visit with Mr. Muir that stirred President Roosevelt’s passion for preservation of natural beauty and prompted the establishment of Yosemite National Park. Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act of 1906 helped to preserve the archaeological sites of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. In 1908 he named the Grand Canyon a National Monument. During Roosevelt’s administration, he added nearly 230 million acres to the federal public domain.

After Roosevelt’s west coast excursion he headed back towards Washington but made several more stops along the way. One of those was a quick stop in Laramie, Wyoming on the 30th of May where he visited the only university in the state of Wyoming. The university had, upon learning that President Roosevelt planned a western campaign tour, extended a personal invitation engraved on a piece of bear skin. Roosevelt readily accepted the invitation and was warmly welcomed in Laramie.

On the morning of the 30th, the Union Pacific, Presidential Train arrived at the exact scheduled time of 7:30 a.m. and Roosevelt personally congratulated the engineer. Laramie’s band played and the university canon was fired in salute as Roosevelt left the train. While in Laramie, President Roosevelt was presented with one of Wyoming’s finest range horses of the time. Formally owned by George W. Pike, the horse named ‘Ragalon’ was given to the city of Douglas, Wyoming and they in-turn gave the horse to Roosevelt. At the same time, a group from Cheyenne presented Roosevelt with a silver mounted saddle.

I have not yet discovered who the saddle maker was, but I strongly suspect that Frank Meanea, one of the finest saddle makers in the entire west, whose shop was located in Cheyenne, was the maker commissioned to craft the saddle that was presented to Roosevelt.
Outfitted with an exceptionally well trained, single-footed horse and a custom made saddle, Roosevelt decided that rather than take the train from Laramie to Cheyenne, he would ride the 65 miles. The president and those accompanying him, which included Senator F.E Warren, US Marshall Frank Hadsell, Deputy US Marshall Joe Lefors and R.S. Van Tassell of Cheyenne, along with many others.

The austere ‘posse’ rode the trail over the Continental Divide and through the hills and valley streams of south central Wyoming, arriving in Cheyenne, at Fort D. A Russell in the late afternoon of May 31st after nearly 10 hours in the saddle.

In Cheyenne, President Roosevelt was treated to a specially arranged wild west performance at Frontier Park. Wild horse races, bulldogging exhibitions, steer roping and ladies relay races were all displayed for his entertainment. As in every other town that the president visited, a grand parade was arranged in which the president usually chose to ride horseback, rather than sitting in a presidential carriage.

In Cheyenne, President Roosevelt was accompanied by William F. Cody and Charles B. Irwin. I believe, at the time, Cody and Irwin were partners in the first Wild West extravaganza. Each man would later form his own company, Cody’s ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West’ and Irwin’s “101 Ranch Wild West Show.”

At the formal presentation of horse and saddle by Senator Warren to Roosevelt, replied, “…I thank you and my friends from Cheyenne and Douglas most heartily. It is a beautiful horse, certainly the finest which I have ever ridden.

I shall take the liberty to rechristen him ‘Wyoming’ for the people who have been so generous to me.” ‘Wyoming’ became the President’s favorite parade mount at the nation’s Capitol.
On June 2nd, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt left Cheyenne on the Union Pacific Railroad. The presidential train passed through Pine Bluffs, Wyoming; Bushnell, Kimball, Dix, Potter, Sidney and Ogallala, Nebraska before stopping for the night in North Platte.
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