Written by Kurt Moore
Published in the July 4, 2011 edition of The Marion Star
MARION - President Warren G. Harding became the first president to visit Alaska when he and his wife, Florence, traveled to what was then an American territory in 1923.
The trip, though unprecedented, didn't get much fanfare after it was eclipsed by Harding's illness and death on his return journey. Scholars, historians and others will get a chance to revisit it during this year's Warren G. Harding Symposium at The Ohio State University-Marion.
"The Western Trip: Discovery, Understanding, and the Death of a President" will be July 22 and 23 at various locations in Marion including on the Marion Campus. It will be the second symposium after "The Man, The Myth and The Legacy," which drew more than 125 participants in 2010.
Organizers created the Harding Symposium to be an academic, social and cultural exploration of the life and times of America's 29th president. Gary Iams, coordinator of community relations for OSU-M, said it's fitting for the campus to play a part considering it's part of a major university "sitting in the hometown of a president."
This year's event will feature workshop sessions led by Warren G. Harding Home and Museum site manager and researcher Sherry Hall, Alaskan historian James Geraghty and Dr. Richard Harding, the president's great-nephew.
It will focus on the western journey that Hall said included about 80 speeches and was to include a trip through the Panama Canal and a stop in Puerto Rico. Harding wouldn't get past San Francisco, where he died from heart trouble on Aug. 2, 1923, while resting in a San Francisco hotel.
"That western trip which Harding called a 'voyage of understanding' was a little known event which was so important in Harding's presidency," Iams said. It was little known partly because Harding's death "really took all the focus."
"It was a phenomenal thing to take the presidency on the road like that," Hall said.
It was pushed back a year because of labor strikes with the coal and railway industries in 1922.
"It's a story that's never been told," she said, talking about the difficulty to find speakers knowledgeable on the trip. "It has become a backdrop to his death. What has become lost is why he was going, what he was trying to achieve."
It was meant to be a sort of a fact-finding mission as the president traveled to determine the status of Alaska's natural resources, Hall said. She said at the time there was a "bureaucratic nightmare" as far as different agencies operating in Alaska and who was in charge.
The trip, taken by train, was to include a few stops in major cities but ballooned to about 80 stops.
"It's like the mini-presidency within his presidency," said Hall, who said Harding talked to those in the west about how despite the divide people in the United States had the same dreams and concerns.
"Presidents didn't travel to the west much," she said. "Not west of the Mississippi River where the population was still scarce."
Along with the workshops there also will be tours of the Harding Home, the Harding Tomb and the Marion County Historical Society.
A wine and dessert open house will be July 22 at Marion's Union Station, where Stuart Caul of the Southeastern Railway Museum in Georgia will talk about efforts to restore the Pullman railroad car in which the Hardings rode during the trip.
The station, built in the early 1900s previous to Harding's "front porch" campaigns, was the last rail stop on Harding's funeral procession.
The Harding Home already has begun preparations with several artifacts from the trip. A walking stick and other carved wood items given to Harding by Alaskan natives are among items that's been put on display.
Hall has several items not yet put on display that she will bring to the event.
Reporter Kurt Moore: 740-375-5151 or firstname.lastname@example.org