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Sunday, August 09, 1981

Presidential Visits

Ernest D. Wichels

Only three presidents of the United States have actually visited the Mare Island Naval Shipyard and Vallejo.

Many, as candidates, have come through this city and county. Two, in other capacities, have come to Mare Island. One was Harry S. Truman, as U.S. senator and chairman of an investigative committee to look into ship-building costs. The other was Gov. Ronald Reagan while governover of California in 1974.  Rutherford B. Hayes, paid a presidential visit to Mare Island in the fall of 1880.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt came here twice. First, in 1913, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He consented to a meeting with a committee of some 20 Mare Island clerical workers who were attempting to secure a wage increase. Your columnist remembers his comment clearly, at the conclusion of the committee’s presentation: “I whole heartedly sympathize with you; I am only a glorified white-collar employee of the government myself.” As president, he came here during the early part of World War II.

The third president was Theodore Roosevelt. He came here on May 4, 1903 to lay the conerstone of the Navy YMCA, located for a half century on Santa Clara Street, between Georgia and York streets. Directly across York Street were wooden steps, leading to the top of the hill. This has since been leveled during the redevelopment era some 20 years ago.  The Vallejo Chronicle had a “field day” reporting on the events leading up to Roosevelt’s visit.  On the evening of May 12, 1903; “J.K. Misner and two comrades from Vallejo’s Troop B of the Roosevelt Hough Riders, went to San Jose to visit the president.”

On May 13, 1903, the Chronicle said: “Thousands of visitors from Santa Rosa, Benicia, Napa and other points are coming here tomorrow to greet President Roosevelt. Vallejo will have the greatest number of visitors in its history….” Please remember they had to come by steam railroad.

On the evening before the president’s visit to Vallejo, Roosevelt was the guest speaker at a banquet in San Francisco’s Palace Hotel.  Thousands of enthusiastic admirers gathered on the streets surrounding the Pal-ace Hotel on the evening of May 10 to greet the nation’s chief executive.

Among. those on the scene were Vallejoans W.T. Kelley, Mr. and Mrs. V.V. Harrier, J.B. Corcoran, and Mr. and Mrs. George Weniger.  President Teddy Roosevelt came to Vallejo from the lower hay on the Navy torpedo boat Paul Jones, arriving at the Virginia Street wharf at 4 p.m., and upon landing, Rear Adm. Miller, commandant of Mare Island, introduced the president to Philip B. Lynch, mayor of Vallejo and to members of the arrangements committee.

A short parade then escorted the president to the Santa Clara Street site. Veterans of the GAR, Spanish-American War, the Goat Island Band, St. Vincent’s Band, and thousands of Vallejo school children marched.  The program was simple, with Chaplain Adam A.. McAlister (founder of St. Peter’s Chapel on Mare Island, and one time rector of Vallejo’s Ascension Church) giving the in-vocation.  The president was introduced by Mrs. McCalla, called “the Mother of Vallejo’s Navy” whose husband was soon to become commandant at Mare Island, relieving Rear Adm. Miller.

The Chronicle carried in full the, excellent talk by the president.  At the conclusion, Roosevelt was presented with a golden trowel by the citizens of Vallejo.  The president left for Mare Island by barge at 5 p.m, for a brief reception at the Navy yard: he left at 5:45 p.m. by the torpedo boat Paul Jones, and returned to San Francisco.  The Evening Chronicle thanked two individuals for the visit: “Had it not. been for’ M.H. DeYoung of San Francisco and his personal influence, and that of Mrs. McCalla, it is doubtful whether the president would be here today.”

Some of the column headlines in that newspaper are worth quoting: “Ten thousand people extend royal welcome.” “Magnificent greeting and waving of flags by school children.” Grand spectacle amid flowers, flags and music and patriotic talks.”  Of course it isn’t very often that a president comes to townĂ‚? and since in earlier days when the only transportation from the nation’s capital was by ship or Pullman car across the plains, mountains and deserts, we couldn’t expect. it.

But one final historic note should be added to Teddy’s trip to Mare Island that May 14, 1903 aboard the torpedo boat Paul Jones,  Apparently the skipper, seeking to impress his commander-in-chief, broke all speed records up the bay. Boats along the shorelines were swamped by the waves and, then the Paul Jones returned, it was found that her smokestacks (they burned coal in those days) were so badly burned from excess heat that Mare Island had to replace them.  But the object of that trip was not in vain. Vallejo’s Navy YMCA served the enlisted men of the Navy with a “home away from home” for more than 50 years. And it served the community, too, in later, years, with an exercise gym, volleyball, showers, etc.

It was a beautiful three-story landmark in the downtown area.  More, in next Sunday’s column, of that week when “TR” came to town.