From coast to coast, Theodore Roosevelt took his grand tour of the western United States between April and June of 1903. On tour, Roosevelt laid down the cornerstone of the University of Chicago Law School, made his legendary visit to the Yosemite Valley, and gave whistle stop speeches in small towns and big towns alike (the tour is described in a letter to John Hay). As Roosevelt greeted crowds of Americans, he reminded them of their common values and appreciated their hard work; at nearly every stop, he recognized veterans and children for their contributions to society.
Recently, the Theodore Roosevelt Center has digitally published many of these 1903 speeches. Some of the speeches are short, some of them are long, but they all seem to echo the same language as President Roosevelt recalls his experiences ranching or summarizes the qualities that make America great. Although the speeches are similar, around the first week of June 1903, a few speeches stand out due to their mention of current events. In particular, Roosevelt’s address to the crowds of Denison, Iowa, makes mention of “natural disasters” affecting both the Midwest and the South. In response to these disasters, President Roosevelt’s speech carries a unique weight of faith and assurance.
On June 2, 1903, Roosevelt stated that “there have come calamities upon our people here in Iowa, to an even greater degree in Kansas, in Missouri, I see also by today’s paper, in Georgia.” There were several natural disasters plaguing the nation as Roosevelt conducted one of the greatest tours of his life. Although he mentioned the “calamities” vaguely, they were surprisingly significant events.
One of the hundreds of brief stops on President Roosevelt's long western trip,
Woonsocket, S.D. July 18, 1903.
From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.
In Iowa, the Des Moines River had flooded the city of Des Moines, limiting communication and transportation thus limiting supplies. People counted their food stocks, knowing that it would be a few days before trains would be able to return to schedule. Relief workers maintained the levee, rescued families, and tried to keep casualties to a minimum in the given conditions. On June 1, the New York Times reported those conditions, “for more than two days it has rained constantly and the mercury has stood close to the freezing point.” The situation was no better further south. Near Kansas City, the Missouri River also reached a high point, causing property damage and leaving thousands homeless.
As if the nation did not have enough to worry about in the wake of the floods, one of the deadliest tornados in U.S. history touched down in Georgia on June 1. The tornado initially hit the Gainesville Cotton Mill and surrounding area. About one hundred people, including children, died immediately and many more with severe injuries followed. By June 2, emergency responders were providing medical care, temporary shelters, and clothing to the victims of the tornado – who would soon be experiencing rain and cold temperatures, like their Midwestern fellows.
With natural disasters abounding, Americans everywhere were concerned about their loved ones and their communities. President Roosevelt's address at Denison, Iowa, offered comfort. This speech was more than just another whistle stop greeting. Roosevelt’s words served as a boost to morale and a timely reminder that “all our troubles are temporary; that misfortunes, and we shall have them, will be met and overcome, because in heart and hand and head the American citizen is able to win his way in the long run.”
“Situation at Des Moines: The River Has Receded, but Railroads are Tied Up – Food and Fuel Famine is Threatened.” New York Times (New York, NY) June 1, 1903.
“Gainesville’s Great Loss: One Hundred Killed and 150 Injured by the Tornado. Probably Twenty More Will Die – Eight Hundred Persons Homeless – Property Loss $500,000 – An Appeal for Aid.” New York Times (New York, NY) June 2, 1903.
“The 25 Deadliest U.S. Tornadoes,” NOAA, http://www.spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/killers.html, accessed January 2, 2015.
“20,000 Made Homeless by Kansas City Flood: Rain is Pouring Down and River has not Receded. Lighting and Water Works Shut Down Leaning Community in Darkness – Packing Houses Escape Destruction.” New York Times (New York, NY) June 2, 1903.