The president of the United States was going to visit Santa Cruz in 1891.
To see the nation’s leader was a thrill, and an honor for the county. But this was Benjamin Harrison, to some a controversial figure, to others an uninspiring politician. Which Harrison would people see? Was he the last Civil War general to be president, still leading Abraham Lincoln’s fight for Civil Rights? Was he a puppet of big business interests, or the courageous father of the Progressive Era fighting monopolies? Santa Cruz looked forward to personally take the measure of the man.
Famous for his white top hat on his 5½ foot tall frame, his detractors called him “Little Ben.” Harrison had lost the presidential election of 1888 to Grover Cleveland, even with the support of California and most of the country outside the South. But Harrison became the third person made president by the Electoral College alone. Harrison gained a government with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and on the Supreme Court. His bold progressive agenda contrasted with his Protectionist economics, to cure a national economy sinking into depression. He lost his majority in the House of Representatives after the 1890 mid-term elections.
Rather than let his opponents mischaracterize his policies, in April and May 1891, Harrison set out on a 10,000 mile train journey to visit 21 states in 30 days, and give 150 speeches. He traveled with his wife Caroline, 14-year-old son Russell, Secretary of Agriculture Jeremiah Rusk, and Postmaster General John Wanamaker. In touring California, Harrison was told about a protected grove of famed Giant Redwoods. The president immediately ordered his itinerary changed so he could see them north of Santa Cruz. Only two months before, Harrison had signed into law the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 to protect forests from logging. In four years, Harrison would set aside 22 million acres of public land for national forest reserves.
Harrison arrived in San Francisco April 27, and paraded down Market Street at 1 pm, then attended a banquet at the Palace Hotel hosted by California’s rich and powerful. Laws to prevent corporations from owning each others’ stock, had been sidestepped when men like John D. Rockerfeller invented the “Trust.” By simply setting up a “Board of Trustees,” they could issue trust certificates, instead of being a corporation issuing stock. By the time of Harrison’s election in 1889, more than 5,000 separate companies had been organized into 300 trusts, to prevent competition, keeping prices high and wages low. (Kenneth C. Davis, “Don’t Know Much About History,” 1992.)
Harrison signed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890, to forbid restraint of trade through formation of monopolies. Yet now before the Robber Barons of San Francisco, Harrison sought a level playing field to protect American Industry. The 1890 McKinley Tariff charged 50% on imports, unless the individual countries negotiated a reciprocal lowering of tariffs on American exports. Herrison’s attempts at ending America’s isolationism and expanding trade, started with the Pan American Conference of 1889.
But more at the banquet wanted to hear Postmaster-General John Wanamaker, whom many regarded as a bigger celebrity than the president. Wanamaker had intended to create a business collective in Philadelphia in 1876, but as partners did not join in, he filled their stores with his own goods, inventing the Department Store. He wouldn’t compromise on quality, had a set price that ended arbitrary dickering, kept prices affordable, invented the returns policy, telephone orders, and provided employee fringe benefits like education funds, vacation time, life insurance, and pension plans.
When approached by Harrison for a cabinet post, Wanamaker asked for the hardest position, so Harrison decided instead of Secretary of the Navy he’d be Postmaster-General. Wanamaker created Rural Free Delivery (RFD), commemorative stamps as a fundraising tool, pneumatic tubes for sorting and delivery, Parcel Post (not instituted until 1913), and trolley offices, where the post office came to the customer. Wanamaker grew concerned over communications monopolies, and wanted telephone and telegraphs to be postal services, since the telegraph had originally been underwritten by the Post Office Dept. in 1843, yet now J. Gould’s Western Union and Postal Telegraph had a virtual monopoly.
Next Harrison went to the Mechanic’s Pavilion, for a reception by the Grand Army of the Republic, where another aspect of his personality was shown. A Civil Rights Republican, Harrison supported John C. Fremont and then Abraham Lincoln for president, served as a Union General, and backed Radical Reconstruction to assure the Civil Rights of blacks. As senator, he unsuccessfully supported education for southern Whites and Freedmen. He also took the politically damaging position of opposing the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act for violating treaties and civil rights. As the president, he sought to enforce the 15th Amendment, backing the unsuccessful Federal Elections Bill of 1890, to guarantee black voting rights. He appointed Theodore Roosevelt to reform the Civil Service of graft, and unqualified political appointmentees. He modernized the navy from three all-steel warships in 1889 to 22 by 1893.
After a night at the Del Monte Hotel, Harrison toured 17 Mile Drive, then paraded down Alvarado Street in Monterey to receive honors from the public. Harrison said no man should take these tributes personally, as the American people give their devotion to the office, the Constitution, and the flag, but not the man, which is why we have no political uprisings, places that follow men instead of principles . While picnicing at Cypress Point, Harrison generously overpaid a Chinese vendor $1 for a seashell souvenir. But paper money was scarce in the west, and the vendor wasn’t sure it was real money, even from the President of the United States. So a silver dollar was substituted. Which was ironic, since the Sherman Silver Purchase Act he had signed, required the government to purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver each month, because the farm lobby felt increased coinage would raise the value of their crops.
On May Day, the president’s train entered Santa Cruz County, with senators Leland Stanford and Charles Felton, Col. Charles Crocker, and a past and present mayor of San Francisco. The train paused north of Capitola for breakfast while perusing the Surf, which newsman AA Taylor had brought aboard. Arriving in Santa Cruz at 7:40 am, they stopped at the luxurious Sea-Beach Hotel at Beach and Main streets. The president’s entourage admired the hotel’s lush flower gardens, met the local reception committee, consisting of mayor Gustav Bowman, Wm. T. Jeter, FA Hihn, and Abraham Lincoln’s relative of OJ Lincoln, among others. Guests in flower-bedecked open carriages passed the Third Street mansions at the top of the hill, then on the flats, went up Pacific Avenue. The day before, a decorating committee had worked from dawn ’til dusk covering the entire street with evergreens, flowers, bunting and flags. Spectators left no open space along the entire route.
Flower tossing children stood before a ceremonial arch in the street, painted by Wm. Lemos to look like a citadel, topped with a portrait of Harrison and vice president Levi Morton. It stood beside the red brick court house, which reminded folks of Harrison’s legal career. Harrison had argued five times before the Supreme Court. As president, he appointed David J. Brewer and Henry B. Brown to the court, then set up nine regional Circuit Courts of Appeals to relieve the Supreme Court’s workload.
The presidents carriage stopped in front of the Pacific Ocean House, where the Union’s Grand Army and Women’s Relief Corp members were standing. After an introduction by Mayor Bowman, the president said, “In all my journeying in California where every city has presented some lavish display, I have not seen anything so suddenly crated, yet so beautiful.”
The Native Daughters presented a polished redwood burl plaque, upon which Miss Lillian Howard had painted scenes of a redwood forest and ocean cliffs, framed by California poppies. The Women’s Relief Corp gave a book of pressed seaweeds, flowers, and photos, between a cover of polished sea shells.
At 8:25 am, the train left for Welch’s Big Trees Grove, where the presidential family strolled freely through the park marveling at the arboreal giants. They joined 25 others entering the hollow trunk of the Fremont Tree, after which 13 people joined hands around its trunk. Postmaster-General Wanamaker received the string measuring the biggest tree. After 20 minutes, they took the train over the summit, where Harrison remarked, “We have been greatly surprised to see vineyards and orchards at those altitudes….” They had a 10 minute stop at Los Gatos, followed by a half-hour in San Jose, then arriving 11:30 at the Alameda. On May 6 they reached Seattle.
Harrison returned to Washington DC The election of 1892 was a rematch against Grover Cleveland. Harrison’s wife died of Tuberculosis 20 days before the election, which he lost, then 12 days before Cleveland’s inauguration, the Panic of 1893 hit, blamed in part on Harrison’s economic policies. Yet Harrison had launched the Progressive Era, which lasted until 1920.