He died in San Francisco on August 2, 1923, and when word finally reached Seward, the town - like the rest of the nation - went into shock. But for Seward's 750 residents, the sudden, tragic death of the 29th President of the United States was much more personal.
"Less than a month ago he walked the streets of Seward, vibrant with life," the Seward Gateway reported on August 8th, "with a kindly word of greeting for all with whom he came in contact." Unlike some politicians, Warren G. Harding's genial manner was genuine, and Sewardites were thrilled to have met him.
A conservative Republican elected in 1920 by the widest popular margin ever, his administration appeared exemplary to an admiring public. Compared to his predecessor Woodrow Wilson, who was autocratic and distrustful of business, Harding was "just folks" and willing to give business a free hand. After World War I, people wanted normalcy, and Harding promised to give it to them.
Before reaching Seward, Harding had shown his warmth in a speech at Skagway. "The longer I live and the more I see of communities and human beings," he said, "the more firmly is my belief established that the sweetest thing in the world is the friendship of a few dependable friends."
Handsome, eloquent, amiable, perhaps "the friendliest man who ever entered the White House," Harding wanted to be helpful, do favors for everyone, make everyone happy. But while he smiled and plodded along, some of his corrupt political appointees, including his Attorney General and Secretary of the Interior, betrayed him.
Now he was dead, supposedly from ptomaine poisoning from crab eaten while in Alaska. But there had been no autopsy, and later there would be rumors of suicide and murder. Doctors gave the cause of death as a "stroke of apoplexy," but even today it remains a mystery.
But Seward and the nation didn't yet know the whole story. Though Harding put on a serene festive face while in Alaska, beneath the mask he was in a state of tragic fear. His administration was enmeshed in corruption and graft now beyond his control and investigations had begun. Harding also feared his secret affair with Nan Britten would become public as well as the child she had borne him.
Harding, the first U.S. President to visit Alaska, came to dedicate the government-owned Alaska Railroad by driving the golden spike at Nenana River Bridge. He left Washington, D.C. on June 20 and planned to travel across the country on a ten-car train, by ship to Alaska, to Canada, along the Pacific coast, through the Panama Canal and on to Puerto Rico. As of 1923, it was the longest trip ever scheduled for a U.S. President. Secretary of Commerce Herbert C. Hoover and Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace accompanied him, planning to conduct public hearings throughout the Alaska Territory. His entourage also included the Chief of the Forest Service, Col. W.J. Greeley, Alaska Governor Scott C. Bone, the President's personal secretary and physician, several aides, secret service agents, and a bevy of newspaper reporters.
The President arrived in Seward aboard the troop transport U.S.S. Henderson on July 13, 1923, escorted by the destroyers Hull and Cory. Resurrection Bay had never seen such a fleet, which also included the minesweeper Tern, the survey ship Cuyama, the collier Jason, and four S-type submarines.
A progressive little Alaska town, Seward averaged a steamer visit every three days during the summer. The current mayor, Leroy Vincent Ray, had been born in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts in 1877. His parents, the Vincents, died young leaving four children who were taken in by relatives. L.V. was adopted by the Rays. At 17 he began his study of law, gaining admittance to the Massachusetts Bar in 1900. For the next six years, Ray practiced law in Seattle, moving to Seward in 1906. The next year, he replaced Cecil H. Clegg as Assistant District Attorney in Seward. In 1908, he married Hazel Sheldon in Valdez. A year later they had a daughter, Hazel Patricia, and later a son, Lee Vincent. By the time he resigned to practice privately in 1909, his peers considered him "one of the best trial lawyers of the north." He served as Seward City Attorney and six terms as mayor. From 1913 to 1915, Ray served in the Territorial Senate as its first president. Although he remained active in Republican politics, he worked behind the scenes, preferring the tempo of small-town life in Seward. He later became legal counsel for the government railroad. Whenever a steamer arrived, his secluded office in the rear of the Harriman Building across from city hall (sometimes called the Ray Building), hosted some of Alaska's and this country's most important legal and political figures. He died in 1946.
During Ray's term as mayor in 1923, furnished houses rented from $5 to $25 a month; apartments, $50 to $75. Coal cost $10 to $14 a ton, water $2.50 a month, and electricity, 15 cents per kilowatt hour. The town boasted one of the largest Standard Oil sub stations on the coast, with a fuel oil capacity of two million gallons. From restaurants to sawmills, from auto garages to ladies furnishing stores, Seward had most anything anyone needed to survive comfortably. In addition to a movie theater, radio station, and daily newspaper, the town had a modern telephone system, a jewelry store, a large cold storage and fisheries plant, one cannery, tailors, doctors, lawyers, dentists - and everything else one would expect to find in a modern town in the States. Area truck farms supplied the town each year with about 23 tons of potatoes, 21 tons of rutabagas, and 13 tons of cabbages, lettuce, radishes, onions and other vegetables, and 75 gallons of cultivated berries and domestic currents. Local people picked and preserved 300 gallons of wild currents and blueberries a season. Seward's modern self-sufficiency surprised both the East Coast press and President Harding.
As the Henderson passed into Resurrection Bay, the Presidential party conducted a ceremony on the ship's forward upper deck to officially name the entrance "The Harding Gateway to Resurrection Bay. "I should rather have this gateway bear my name than any other of the wonders of Alaska," the President commented. Not long afterwards, local painter and decorator, Aron Rickson, painted "Harding Gateway" in white 12-foot letters, 125 feet long across the cliffs of Fox Island. Harding also had a local glacier named after him as a result of this visit.
Seward Mayor L.V. Ray had everything ready for the entourage. A huge evergreen arch decorated the dock, and businesses along Fourth Avenue sported red, white an blue bunting and dozens of flags. The town had even installed a siren to announce the arrival. Harding would visit for two hours in Seward, then board the train for Anchorage and the Interior. Eventually he planned to take another train to Cordova, where his fleet would meet him for the trip home.
Fourteen numbered automobiles and a reception committee met the Henderson, and the Presidential party paraded through town. Mayor Ray was especially concerned that Seward's children have fond memories of this historic event. He organized a reception at the Odd Fellows Hall, where all the town's children lined up to meet the President and First Lady Florence Harding. Mrs. L. V. Ray, chair of the ladies reception committee, presented Mrs. Harding with a beautiful Attu basket. Two hours passed quickly, and soon a crowd gathered around the railroad station to wave goodbye and take pictures.
The entourage stopped at Tunnel for dinner and spent the evening in Anchorage. The next day, Harding drove the engine for 26 miles, from Wasilla to Willow. The engineer complimented him on his driving, but the steward complained that he was a poor stopper since his rapid braking had broken eleven cups. Harding drove the golden spike at the Nenana Bridge on July 15th marking the railroad's completion. From Fairbanks, the President ventured 90 miles via auto to McCarty. It had been an exhausting trip and Mrs. Harding showed signs of fatigue.
While Harding toured Alaska, his ten-ship flotilla remained in Resurrection Bay. With a thousand sailors on leave, the town and military scheduled boxing matches, baseball games, picnics and band concerts; and people delighted in watching the Marine detachment's daily drills. All expected the five days before the fleet would sail to pass quickly. But Seward would be in for a surprise. Probably due to Mrs. Hardings fatigue, the President changed his plans and decided to return to Seward rather than take another auto trip to Chitna followed by a train ride to Cordova on the Cooper River and Northwestern Railroad. This would give the President an extra thirty-six hours to relax before leaving Alaska.
Upon arriving back in Seward, the Navy band greeted the President with "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here!" Mayor Ray, who had accompanied Harding to Fairbanks, asked the President what Seward could do to please him during his brief stay.
"I want a day of peace," Harding answered.
Ray saw to it that the President got his request. For those hours, the business of governing this nation was directed from Seward. And President Warren G. Harding, confronted with scandal, corruption and disgrace at home, leisurely walked Fourth Avenue and experienced perhaps the last peaceful day of his life. The rest of the Presidential party went shopping, hiking, fishing, mountain climbing and autoing.
Although he had an important speech to deliver in Seattle , Harding wanted to relax before working on it. He decided to take a stroll up Seward's Fourth Avenue. Mayor Ray instructed the town to conduct business as usual and not bother Harding. Townspeople complied. The behavior of Seward citizens even impressed the newsmen who complimented them for not approaching Harding with demands, as had been the case in most other towns.
"He talked to everybody with that simplicity and charm of manner which makes friends for him," the New York Times reported. When the President passed a Fourth Avenue fish market, its owner, Sven Lundblad came out in his shirt sleeves to greet him.
Sixty years old, Lundblad had been in Alaska for 30 years and wrote poetry on the side. In fact, he used to distribute copies of his poetry on scenic postcards. Seven years after Harding's visit, Lundblad published a collection of his poems called Life in Death. He died in 1933.
But on this sunny July day in 1923, Lundblad approached Harding with "Let me recite a poem for you."
"Go ahead," said the President.
In his heavy Swedish accent and with much dramatic effect, Lundblad launched into his poem:
"That's fine," said the President when Lundblad had finished. "I should like to use it in my Seattle speech. Have you a copy of it?"
Lundblad just happened to have many copies of it, each printed neatly on a picture postcard. Harding was delighted. "This is splendid," he said. "I am going to read it at the end of my Seattle speech on Alaska. Who wrote it?"
Lundblad admitted his poetic talents and the President complimented him. Then, since the poet owned a fish market, Harding asked Lundblad to judge a dispute. What was the better fish commercially, red or king salmon? During his walk, in a debate with the district's U.S. Marshal Harvey Sullivan, Harding had maintained red salmon the more valuable. Before reaching Lundblad's shop, the President had appealed to another fish market owner who had told him that, although many maintained king salmon had a finer flavor, red had more value commercially. Lundblad confirmed Harding's position.
"I win," the President said to Sullivan.
A member of the Presidential party wanted a manicure and a debate ensued as to whether a small town like Seward could offer such civilized services. Impressed with what he saw all around him, Harding bet a reporter they could get a manicure in Seward. "We'll make it a tin of tobacco," said the President. When they reached a barber shop, Harding asked for a manicure and found none to be had in town. A few doors beyond the barber, Harding found a tobacconist and paid his wager. The president also bought a plug of chewing tobacco for another member of his party. "I am doing this in memory of dear old Knute Nelson," he said. "This was his favorite brand."
During his stroll through town, many children recognized Harding and he stopped to talk with them. "What's your name?" he would ask them. A sister and btorther named Constance and Jerrold told him their names. "Constance, that's a beautiful name," he remarked. A 12-year -old girl ran out of her house and asked Harding to pose for a photo. Afterwards, he asked her name and was told it was Beulah. "I like the name Beulah," he said. "I've got a cousin of that name and I'm going to see her when we get to Los Angeles."
Four-year-old Louie Miller, son of a local barber, came running by Harding with a pencil stuck over his ear. The President stopped him and asked if he planned to do any writing.
"Sure," Louie said.
"Would you like to have another pencil to go over the other ear?" Harding asked.
"Sure," the lad replied.
Harding took a long, nicely sharpened pencil from his pocket and placed it behind Louie's other ear. The youngster shook his head knocking the pencil to the ground. He picked it up, took the other off his ear, and turned the two over and over comparing them. He finally hand the gift pencil back to the President with: "It's too long for me. I guess I can't use it."
"He's going to be a businessman," Harding chuckled. "Isn't he a wonderful child." He returned the pencil to his pocket and shook hands with Louie before continuing up the street.
"Come over here," shouted a member of the President's party from across the street. "See some game trophies."
Into George Sexton's hotel lobby the group went, impressed with the heads of mountain sheep, caribou and other animals. Sexton, an old-time Alaskan, entertained the President with stories of each trophy's history.
That afternoon Harding returned to the Henderson to write his Seattle speech with its quote from Lundblad's poem. The entire fleet left Resurrection Bay at two o' clock the next morning for Valdez, Cordova and then Seattle. Many Seward citizens lined the dock in the lightness of Alaska's midnight sun to bid farewell to President and Mrs. Harding and the other friends they had mad during the week.
On the way to Sitka, Harding received a coded message from a navel seaplane. He appeared shocked after reading it and made comments about false friends. The corruption of his administration -- especially the Teapot Dome scandal -- was about to become public, and Harding knew it. In Vancouver, the President almost collapsed on a lecture platform but managed to finish his speech. Harding's doctor ordered him to bed after the President complained of violent cramps and indigestion, and initially blamed the condition on tainted Alaskan crab Harding had eaten earlier.
His aides canceled speeches in Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and rushed the ailing President to San Francisco where he said he felt better. At his hotel, Harding's condition grew worse and he developed pneumonia. Although he seemed to improve, Harding died suddenly on August 3, 1923 to everyone's shock. Although doctors couldn't determine precisely his cause of death, Mrs. Harding refused to allow an autopsy.
Eight days after Harding's death, most of Seward gathered at the Arctic Brotherhood Hall (now Dreamland Bowl) for memorial services. Mayor L.V. Ray delivered the eulogy, helping the town through this tragedy with his eloquence. After a glowing biographical sketch of Harding, Ray became philosophical:
Harding had been impressed with Seward's natural beauty and friendliness. In the speech he gave from the rear platform of the railroad car he took from Seward to Fairbanks, he described Seward as "A rare jewel in a perfect setting." The day after Seward's memorial-service goodbye to a President it loved, the local newspaper returned the compliment:
"We believe that every man, woman or child who met the late President Harding while he was in Seward, takes his death as a personal loss. No public official who ever walked our streets took such a hold on the heart-strings of our population; and the memory of his visit will ever remain a precious jewel in our recollections."