When The President Comes to Town
It’s been a while since the president has come to town. Sure, George W. Bush surveyed the damage inflicted by Hurricane Ike in 2008, buzzing around the island in Marine One to get a first-hand look at the destruction left in the wake of the category 4 storm. But for the last time a sitting president actually, set foot on the island, we have to go all the way back to the 1930s. And even then it was a brief, fifty-minute-long visit before speeding away to our neighbor to the north.
In 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt finished off an eleven-day fishing voyage in the Gulf with a stop to the island. Galveston Mayor Adrian Levy gifted the president “the very finest rod and reel,” to mark the occasion. Roosevelt graciously accepted the token and regaled the adoring crowd with a fishing story, “Yesterday one of our party caught a twenty-four pound amberjack, and this morning that same fish weighed thirty-five pounds!”
Before heading north to Houston and then on to College Station and Fort Worth, FDR had a chance meeting with a future president. Waiting dock-side to receive the presidential yacht Potomac was a gangling, first-term congressman from the Hill Country, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
This visit though, would prove to be the outlier in the twentieth century - no other sitting president came to Galveston. The city’s fading prestige and falling importance, especially relative to the phenomenal growth of Houston, explain why presidents during the twentieth century stopped in the Bayou City and not the Oleander City. During the 1800’s however, the opposite was true. Every president from Ulysses S. Grant to Grover Cleveland spent time on the island. Naturally, these years coincided with Galveston’s golden age.
During the last few decades of the 1800’s Galveston was among the largest cities in Texas and by far the most sophisticated. In the years before the construction of the Houston Ship Channel, Galveston was still the state’s largest port. Money and people flowed in, transforming the city in the process. Galveston was the first Texas city with electricity, gas street lights, and telephones. It had the best newspaper and theaters. More than a dozen steamship lines from Europe, Asia, and Latin America connected the city to the world. Galveston was a truly cosmopolitan place - and politicians took notice.
In 1880, Ulysses S. Grant capped off his famous world tour with a stop in Galveston. Grant returned to the United States as rumors swirled that the Republicans would nominate him for an unprecedented third term. In Galveston, Grant was met with an elaborate reception. Grant, the former Union general, used the opportunity to promote reconciliation between the North and South after the Civil War: “I wish for the people of Texas as I do for the people of the entire south, that they may go on developing their resources and become great and powerful, and in their prosperity forget that there is a boundary between the north and south.”
Grover Cleveland was lured to the island during his first term. Alfred H. Belo, editor of the Galveston Daily News and an associate of the President, promised Cleveland great fishing. Cleveland was an avid angler and particularly loved tarpon fishing in the Gulf. When Belo died a few years later, Cleveland said the death of “an exceptionally able, fearless and conscientious journalist” was “a loss to the entire country.”
The most consequential presidential visit would come, however, in 1891 with Cleveland’s successor, Benjamin Harrison. After signing a bill that directed millions of federal dollars to the dredging of the port, Harrison made his way to the island. Galvestonians were eager to celebrate the president’s visit, knowing the bill would ensure the future success and prosperity of their city. Upon reaching Galveston, Harrison inspected the jetties and docks so important for Galveston’s maritime traffic. This subject was an important one for Harrison. Addressing the gathered crowd, Harrison said, “I have always believed that it was one of the undisputed functions of the general government to make these great waterways…safe, commodious, and easy of access.” Accompanying the president was Norris Wright Cuney, an African American, born into slavery, who Harrison appointed as the Collector of Customs for the Port of Galveston. Cuney previously served as Galveston’s first African American alderman and was one of Texas’s most prominent Black politicians during the 1800’s.
When Harrison left town, it would be decades before a president came back to Galveston. It seemed to signal the end of an era. Within a decade of Harrison’s visit, a hurricane would batter the city and the discovery oil in East Texas assured that Houston, not Galveston, would be the dominant city on the coast. But for a brief period, the island city outshone its rivals and was the place for presidents and politicians to flock to.