With all the buildup to President Barack Obama’s visit to the 49th state next week, it’s worth a look back at past presidential visits.
They’re far and few between. Usually, Alaska is not the destination but rather a refueling stop for Air Force One.
What’s significant about this trip is the length of stay. Obama is expected to be in Alaska for almost three days with stops in Anchorage, Seward and two off-the-road-system communities, Dillingham and Kotzebue.
Obama is the first president to venture into the Arctic. His mission: to use Alaska as a bully pulpit for climate change.
President Warren Harding was the first president to spend some serious time in Alaska and the first to visit the territory. He arrived in 1923 to celebrate the completion of a railroad line.
It was a big, five-day adventure for him, starting with a voyage by ship from Seattle and a swing of Southeast Alaska with stops in Metlakatla, Ketchikan, Wrangell and Juneau, where he and his party posed for a photograph at Mendenhall Glacier, and Gov. Scott Bone entertained Harding and his wife at the governor’s mansion with an outdoor dance with 500 in attendance.
After arriving in Seward, he headed north by rail to Nenana, where he drove a golden spike in the railroad tracks.
On the return trip, he stopped in Talkeetna and visited the Fairview Inn, which had just opened.
History is rife with speculation that something Harding ate at the Fairview caused his death. But the facts don’t bear that out.
“He didn’t start suffering stomach pains until three days after they left Seward, heading towards Seattle,” said Laura Downing Bill, author of the Aunt Phil’s Trunk Alaska history series. “He had extremely high blood pressure and he had an enlarged heart.”
Harding didn’t make it back to Washington, but died a few days later in a San Francisco hotel room.
But Alaskans could at least feel good that they gave the president a good time.
“It was kind of a big deal having a president of the United States come through at the time,” Bill said.
And ever since, just about every presidential visit has been a big deal to Alaskans, regardless of their party affiliation.
In the summer of 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spent six days on a trip through Southeast Alaska, as well as Kodiak and the Aleutians. Between military installation inspections, he worked in some fishing time.
In 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower rode in a parade through downtown Anchorage, as throngs of Alaskans waved and cheered. He was, after all, the president who shepherded Alaska through statehood.
President Lyndon Johnson’s refueling stop in Elmendorf Air Force Base also generated a huge crowd. In a film reel, an announcer with a booming broadcast voice noted the history of the occasion: “He was on American soil for the first time in 17 days. His 28,000-mile odyssey through Southeast Asia was over.”
President Richard Nixon also made history in 1971 when he met with the Emperor Hirohito at Elmendorf, the first meeting between a president and a Japanese emperor.
Gerald Ford’s trip to Alaska in 1975 included an inspection of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
“When the pipeline is completed,” Ford told a crowd, “oil tax revenues will benefit all the citizens of Alaska and stimulate your entire economy.”
Ford then left for Peking, his main destination.
Ronald Reagan’s trip to Fairbanks in 1984 also stands out as a political milestone. He met with Pope John Paul II, who was on his way to canonize martyrs in South Korea.
“The community really thought it was a big moment in the town’s history,” said Dermot Cole, a columnist and longtime political observer who lives in Fairbanks. “There were some people that were unhappy with Reagan’s visit, a few protesters, but not too many.”
But in general, he said, people put politics aside, and thousands turned out for an outdoor ceremony at the Fairbanks airport. There were T-shirts emblazoned with “Great Minds in the Great Land.”
A remnant of red carpet, rolled out for the two charismatic leaders, was auctioned off. Today, you can find it at the Howling Dog Saloon in Fox.
Bill believes most of the presidential visits have been memorable in some way, if not quirky.
“It makes my heart feel warm that such wonderful things happened in our beautiful state,” Bill said.
For more on President Obama’s visit to Alaska, watch Frontiers on Sunday, Aug. 30. It airs at 8:30 a.m. and repeats at 10:30 p.m. following KTVA Nightcast.