President Barack Obama and the first family will visit Yosemite National Park this weekend, and certainly thousands of people will try to get close enough for a look-see. The press corps will tag along, too, kept at a distance by the Secret Service — perhaps a waterfall or two away.
At some point, Obama might make some sort of brief statement, or not. It is after all a family vacation and not a fact-finding trip. And while he’ll be the fifth sitting president to visit Yosemite, Obama’s stay would be hard-pressed to match the historical significance of Teddy Roosevelt’s trip there 113 years ago. Obama also follows William Howard Taft, who visited the park in 1909; Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was there in 1938; and John F. Kennedy, in 1962.
Teddy Roosevelt’s camping trip with naturalist John Muir ultimately resulted in the expansion of Yosemite, which the federal government began protecting while the Civil War still raged, and helped cement Roosevelt’s legacy as a conservationist. Roosevelt established five other national parks including Oregon’s Crater Lake during his two-term presidency, plus 18 national monuments, scores of bird reservations, four game preserves, 24 reclamation projects, 150 national forests including the Stanislaus, and more than 230 million acres of public lands in all. He pushed through the Antiquities Act of 1906 to prevent the destruction of historic or prehistoric ruins on government land.
Their trip was captured in the famous photograph of Roosevelt standing atop Glacier Point with Muir, and other photos, including one of the president standing in a coach as it passed through the cut-out base of a giant sequoia tree. That coach, for the past six decades at least, has been part of the Pierce Miller collection in a private museum east of Modesto. It remains there today, a dusty tribute to yesteryear.
The excursion also left behind its share of local legend and lore. A room on the second floor of Coulterville’s 165-year-old Hotel Jeffery is known as the Teddy Roosevelt Room. The hotel’s old ledger, now protected inside a glass case at the town’s history society center, displays a line that reads “President Roosevelt” and lists “In The Yosemite Valley” as his residence. It indicates he arrived during the daytime and stayed in Room 1. Before a fire devastated the hotel in November 2014, the Teddy Roosevelt Room was the hotel’s most popular, owner Sara Zahn said. And she expects it will be again when the restored Jeffery reopens, she hopes, before Labor Day. It will be expanded to include two rooms and a private bath — more like a presidential suite.
But while Roosevelt’s entry is dated May 15, it doesn’t reflect the year and conflicts with other accounts of his itinerary from his 1903 trip. Nor does the signature match ones found on documents he signed while president. That isn’t to say he didn’t stay there at some other point, perhaps after he left office. Or maybe someone simply reserved the room in case he needed it. But it appears unlikely he stayed there during that particular 1903 trip.
According to a 1994 story in a newsletter publication titled “Yosemite,” Roosevelt left Oakland and traveled overnight by train, arriving May 15, 1903, at Raymond Station. The station at the time represented the closest point by rail to the Wawona Hotel, situated along Highway 41 connecting the park with Fresno. The contingent then rode in coaches to Wawona, where Roosevelt reportedly stayed the night before saddling up horses early the next morning to ride with Muir up to Glacier Point. Other accounts say he made only a brief stop at Wawona before traveling into Yosemite Valley.
For certain, Roosevelt and Muir camped beneath the stars, out of earshot of the press, where two men who loved nature through different perspectives and could agree on one thing: Yosemite’s breathtaking beauty represented nature at its finest and needed to be further protected.
The morning of May 18, 1903, Roosevelt and Muir returned by coach to the special presidential train awaiting them at another stop called Berenda for the return trip to Oakland. A story two days later in the Modesto News, an ancestor of The Modesto Bee, reported that “The president came out the Yosemite on Sunday after greatly enjoying his few days of complete rest and solitude, and communion with nature.”
The train was scheduled to use a lesser line through Merced and Stockton on the return trip. But delays changed the route and sent Roosevelt through Modesto on the main line instead. He arrived in Modesto to a very small crowd because so few people received word of his impending stop.
He told those who turned out, “Friends, I know I was a good American before I came to the Golden West, but now I am a better American than I ever was before. I have seen the wonders of the Yosemite, I have traveled the whole length of your beautiful San Joaquin Valley.”
A Modestan named J.C. Alexander stepped forward and extended his hand to the president — a big mistake considering Roosevelt only two years earlier had replaced assassinated President William McKinley.
“He was taken hold of by two Secret Service men who thrust him back and told him that the president was not shaking hands this trip,” the story read.
“The train left the depot shortly after this episode.”