Thursday, May 11, 2023

On This Day in the Old West: May 12

May 12 was a little sparse as an anniversary date for the 1800s, but in 1901, President William McKinley paid an historic visit to San Francisco. From the time California joined the Union until the 1920 census, San Francisco was the largest and most prominent city on the West Coast. Of course, this encouraged US Presidents to make the cross-country trip from Washington, DC to court the local power brokers and seek votes and influence. McKinley wasn’t’ the first president to make the trip—that was Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880—but his visit garnered a good deal of support for the president.

A Stereoscope of a young lady photographing the President


The original plan was that the president’s grand six-week “victory lap” around the country to celebrate his second term would begin in Washington at the end of April, head west by the southern route, and return home via the Northwest. San Francisco on the Pacific Coast and Buffalo on the East were to be the highlights of the trip. Unfortunately, by the second week of May, the First Lady took ill, and the official touring party of 43 (cabinet members, executive staff, friends, servants, and newspapermen) called a halt in the City by the Bay. For days, Ida McKinley hovered between life and death. When she finally regained consciousness, the entire city breathed a sigh of relief.


The presidential itinerary was, of course, delayed during Mrs. McKinley’s illness. Events were rescheduled for May 19 through the 24th, and the presidential party returned to the East Coast on May 25th. The highlight of his visit, apparently, was his visit to the Presidio for the dedication of General Hospital (later renamed Letterman Hospital). McKinley addressed veterans and patients from the Philippines on his visit. The San Francisco Call gave this account of the event:


President McKinley's visit to the Presidio yesterday will live long in the memory of the gallant soldiers who were greeted by the commander in chief. Three-thousand strong, the recently returned volunteers from the Philippines listened to stirring words from the head of the nation, while the wan and wasted faces of the sick soldiers in the General Hospital brightened as the President passed through the wards and gave a kindly word to the men who lost their health in faraway jungles while fighting for the stars and stripes.

Thousands of citizens flocked to the Presidio yesterday morning to witness the ceremonies. The big parade ground facing the General Hospital, was the spot where the volunteer soldiers gathered to listen to the words of the President.

Suddenly the thunder of the guns told of the approach of the commander in chief and a tumult of applause greeted him as his carriage and escort swept past thousands of sightseers. The band struck up "Hail to the Chief" as the President's carriage drew up at the reviewing platform. As he walked along, the President glanced with pride at the 2000 stalwart men who stood rigidly at attention. The soldiers wore blue coats and trousers, brown leggings and brown slouch hats and carried no arms. As the President advanced to the front of the platform, the buglers sounded the salute and the cheers of the soldiers rent the air in mighty volume. The President raised his hand in salute, and when the cheering subsided addressed the men in terms of glowing praise.

"I count myself very fortunate to have been in the city of San Francisco upon the arrival of your two regiments. I join with my fellow citizen of this city in giving you a welcome home, and at the same time express not only my own thanks as President of the United States but the gratitude of the American people for the splendid service you have rendered to your country in the past two years. Our hearts have been with you, our hopes have been with you; and we have realized in large measure peace as the result of the splendid work you performed in the Philippine Islands."

If your character was in San Francisco in 1901, they could have been in the crowd during one of McKinley’s appearances or speeches. They may even have voted for the man in the recent election.

J.E.S. Hays


  1. Nice story, JES, and I enjoyed the pictures.

    1. Thank you Vicky - I love finding old photos like these!