OpenSFHistory Top Ten: Presidential Visits

by Arnold Woods

From the time that California joined the Union through the 1910 census, San Francisco was the largest and most prominent city on the west coast. Even though Los Angeles grew larger by the 1920 census, San Francisco was still an economic and cultural power to which politicians frequently paid homage to. Naturally, U.S. presidents frequently made the trip from Washington, D.C. to court the local power brokers and seek votes and influence. Our OpenSFHistory collection contains numerous images from these visits and here are ten of our favorites.
 

President Benjamin Harrison and party with Adolph Sutro at Sutro Heights, April 27, 1891.President Benjamin Harrison and party with Adolph Sutro at Sutro Heights, April 27, 1891. (wnp4/wnp4.0194; A.J. McDonald, photographer / Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

Rutherford B. Hayes was the first sitting president to make the trip to San Francisco in 1880. We unfortunately have no images from that visit. However, eleven years later, President Benjamin Harrison would visit as part of a long transcontinental train trip. He arrived in San Francisco on the evening of April 25, 1891 and spent the next week plus in the Bay Area before departing up the Pacific Coast. On April 27, 1891, Adolph Sutro hosted a luncheon for the President and his party. Chicken and duck were the main entrees and the lunch also featured oysters, artichokes, asparagus, and many different wines, champagne, and cognac.
 

President William McKinley and General Shafter in Presidio for dedication of General (later Letterman) Hospital, May 23, 1901.President William McKinley and General Shafter in Presidio for dedication of General (later Letterman) Hospital, May 23, 1901. (wnp37.00935; B.L. Singley, photographer – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

A decade later, President William McKinley made another cross-country railroad trip, arriving in San Francisco on May 12, 1901. Unfortunately, his wife fell ill on the trip up the coast and McKinley’s itinerary was postponed after his arrival as he sat bedside with her until she improved. Events were rescheduled for May 19th through the 24th. On May 23, 1901, the President visited the Presidio for the dedication of General Hospital, which would later be renamed Letterman Hospital. The presidential party left on May 25, 1901 to return to Washington, D.C.
 

President Theodore Roosevelt in Union Square giving speech dedicating Navy Monument, May 14, 1903.President Theodore Roosevelt in Union Square giving speech dedicating Navy Monument, May 14, 1903. (wnp37.01050; Underwood & Underwood, photographers – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

Shortly after his visit to San Francisco, President McKinley was assassinated and Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency. Exactly two years after McKinley’s visit, now President Roosevelt arrived in San Francisco for a visit. During his visit, he attended a banquet in his honor at the Cliff House on May 13, 1903. The next day, the President gave a speech in Union Square to dedicate the Navy Monument, which honored the Navy’s victory in Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War. Late that night, he took a boat to Oakland on his way to Yosemite.
 

President William Taft breaking ground for the Panama Pacific International Exposition at Polo Fields, October 14, 1911.President William Taft breaking ground for the Panama Pacific International Exposition at Polo Fields, October 14, 1911. (wnp37.01874; G.H. Dresser, photographer – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

Eight years later, Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, traveled to San Francisco to break ground for the Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE). Taft, as Secretary of War under Roosevelt, had overseen the Panama Canal project. The PPIE was designed to celebrate the coming completion of the Panama Canal, so Taft naturally was interested. He arrived on October 13, 1911 and went to the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park the next day for the ceremonial groundbreaking for the PPIE. The specific location for the PPIE had not yet then been chosen, but the Park was a possible location, so the Polo Fields hosted the ceremony. The Marina District area was later chosen at the location for the PPIE. President Taft had lunch at the Cliff House on October 15, 1911, then departed later that day.
 

President Woodrow Wilson and Mayor James Rolph in automobile procession on Post Street near Powell, September 17, 1919.President Woodrow Wilson and Mayor James Rolph in automobile procession on Post Street near Powell, September 17, 1919. (wnp37.00045; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson came to San Francisco as part of a nationwide trip to promote the idea of a League of Nations. He arrived in San Francisco on September 17, 1919 and took part in a procession down Market Street, which was lined with spectators, to the Civic Center Plaza, where 60,000 school children greeted him. President Wilson ascended onto a reviewing stand there to acknowledge the crowd, but soon left for the St. Francis Hotel where he and his wife were staying. He gave speeches at the Palace Hotel and Civic Auditorium before leaving on September 18, 1919. Unfortunately, this West Coast trip resulted in health issues and was cut short. Wilson would suffer a severe stroke soon after returning to Washington D.C.
 

President Herbert Hoover and Governor James Rolph in car on McAllister Street in Civic Center, November 8, 1932.President Herbert Hoover and Governor James Rolph in car on McAllister Street in Civic Center, November 8, 1932. (wnp14.4266; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

Warren Harding followed Wilson in the presidency and notably died from an illness at the Palace Hotel on August 2, 1923 while visiting San Francisco. He did not engage in any public events while here because of his illness, so we have no images of him from the visit. After Calvin Coolidge’s presidency though, a “local man” became president. Herbert Hoover had graduated from Stanford in 1895 and later became a member of Stanford’s Board of Trustees. When he received the Republican nomination for president in 1928, he accepted it with a speech at Stanford Stadium. Seeking re-election in 1932, he returned to California to cast his vote. Upon his arrival on election day, November 8, 1932, President Hoover was warmly greeted with a reception at the Civic Center. Due to the Great Depression, however, he was soundly defeated.
 

President Franklin Roosevelt's motorcade leaving Treasure Island, July 14, 1938.President Franklin Roosevelt’s motorcade leaving Treasure Island, July 14, 1938. (wnp27.2675; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

It was six years into Franklin Roosevelt’s 12 years as president before he first visited San Francisco while serving. He arrived on July 14, 1938 and drove across both the then still new bridges spanning the Golden Gate and the Bay. Roosevelt stopped on Treasure Island, where the Golden Gate International Exhibition was being readied and was feted by 1000 people at a luncheon. The president delivered a speech and left for Oakland after lunch to inspect the Pacific Naval fleet while aboard the U.S.S. Houston. Then, like his cousin Teddy many years before, he left the area to visit Yosemite.
 

President Harry Truman speaking at Golden Gate Park bandshell, June 13, 1948.President Harry Truman speaking at Golden Gate Park bandshell, June 13, 1948. (wnp28.1381; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

Harry Truman made several visits to the City during his presidency, first in 1945 at the closing of the convention that created the United Nations. He returned in 1948 during his re-election campaign, during which he delivered a Flag Day address at the Golden Gate Park bandshell before 30,000 people. Truman stated his desire that the U.N. become a powerful force for justice in the world. He would return again during the 1952 election campaign to stump for Democrat candidates.
 

President Dwight Eisenhower waving from motorcade on Geneva Avenue on way to Cow Palace for Republican convention, August 23, 1956.President Dwight Eisenhower waving from motorcade on Geneva Avenue on way to Cow Palace for Republican convention, August 23, 1956. (wnp14.3680; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

The 1956 Republican convention was held in San Francisco at the Cow Palace. There was never a doubt that the very popular President Dwight D. Eisenhower would be renominated. When Eisenhower came to the Cow Palace to accept the nomination, crowds lined Geneva Avenue to greet him. The President won re-election and returned in 1958 to speak with 24 ladies of the California Federation of Republican Women at the Civic Center, an event that was televised throughout the western United States.
 

President Lyndon Johnson greeting crowd at Market, Turk and Mason Streets intersection, June 19, 1964.President Lyndon Johnson greeting crowd at Market, Turk and Mason Streets intersection, June 19, 1964. (wnp14.2722; Bob Bryant, photographer – SF Examiner Negatives / Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

President John F. Kennedy campaigned in San Francisco before his election in 1960, but never visited the City while in office. After his assassination in 1963, his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, made the trip twice during the 1964 election campaign. The first time was on June 19, 1964, where he dedicated the new Federal Building. He also did some glad-handing with the crowds on Market Street. Four months later, Johnson arrived on Columbus Day, October 11,1964, soon after the parade was over. A large crowd remained at Washington Square to hear him speak. After the speech, President Johnson left town to do more politicking.

President Franklin Roosevelt was the first American president to travel by airplane while in office. As late as President Truman’s visits, presidential campaign trips were still largely “whistle-stop” train travels. Later presidential trips, both campaign and official visits were largely by airplane travel. As flying entered the jet age, presidential visits to San Francisco became more frequent. Every president since Johnson made the trip to Baghdad by the Bay with the notable exception of George W. Bush. Gerald Ford’s trip in September 1975 was marred by Sara Jane Moore’s attempted assassination of him outside the St. Francis hotel. San Francisco is no longer the largest city on the West Coast, but it remains an important financial and political power that demands that presidents come for regular visits.