From White House to Wyoming: the Presidents Who Came to Call
Many U.S. presidents visit Wyoming during their terms, and some have even called on our own little corner of paradise here in Cody. In some cases, it was political expediency, but in many examples, presidents came to enjoy the beauty and recreational offerings of the Cowboy State.
All but two of the country’s presidents since Ulysses S. Grant have come to call on Wyoming during their terms, during their campaigns, or to vacation in the state during or after their service to the country.
Our 18th president, serving between 1869 and 1877, President Grant passed through Wyoming a few times while he was in the office, and once during his second term in office. It wasn’t until after he left the office that he spent a little time in the state. A very little time. Just enough to transfer trains in the state’s capital of Cheyenne, have a little dinner party in the train dining room and make a brief speech from a balcony of the train depot hotel.
However, one of Grant’s most important legacies was to sign the 1872 bill that designated Yellowstone the world’s first national park. Even though he never visited Yellowstone, the bill he signed has been called the best idea America ever had.
One of the 19th-century presidents who spent the most time in northwestern Wyoming was Chester A. Arthur. In 1883, he and his large entourage played at being cowboys. Arthur was a bit of a dandy, and in a nod to Western style during a two-month vacation during his term, he covered his business suit with knee-length leather leggings. What I found remarkable about Chester Arthur’s extended stay, mostly in Yellowstone Country, is that he kept in touch with the outside world and engaged in presidential business by one daily mail courier on horseback who delivered and received Arthur’s messages.
Theodore Roosevelt was a big fan of the state, and he made several trips during his presidential tenure and returned to Wyoming to vacation after he left Washington. The robust president was far more of a natural in Western-style clothing and activities than some of his predecessors. He was a frequent visitor to Yellowstone Country, and he made his final visit to the park in 1903 during a two-week vacation. During that trip, he laid the cornerstone for the park’s Roosevelt Arch, bearing the inscription: “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
Years later, Theodore’s fifth cousin Franklin took office, and he also left his mark on Yellowstone Country. Some would argue it wasn’t a positive mark. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942. As a result, some 14,000 Japanese-Americans were incarcerated at the Heart Mountain Confinement Site during World War II. Another interesting tidbit about the publicity-conscious president: When he visited the park, he avoided the multi-story park hotels like the elegant Lake Yellowstone Hotel and instead stayed with the manager of the lodges in his own single-floor home. The home could better accommodate his wheelchair, which he tried to keep from the public view.
President Warren Harding visited the park in 1923, shortly before he died. Staff in the park named a geyser after him and observed a moment of silence in his honor.
Many modern-day presidents have also visited Yellowstone Country.
President Gerald Ford was perhaps the most familiar with Yellowstone of all presidents. When he visited in an official capacity in 1976, he was returning to the stomping ground he knew as a 23-year-old National Park Service Ranger in 1936. One of his duties as a ranger was to welcome VIPs to the park. He also helped protect park rangers who fed the bears at the bear-feeding truck.
President Jimmy Carter fished in Lake Yellowstone and then returned to the park after his presidency and dined in the employee pub at the park’s Lake Lodge. He even signed the wall of the pub, and his signature is still visible today.
George H.W. Bush visited Yellowstone in 1989 to survey the devastation of the 1988 fires. Park officials briefed the president about fire science. Bush also fished in a river near Cody.
Bill and Hillary Clinton took a stroll around Old Faithful Geyser in 1995. President Barack Obama and his family visited Yellowstone in 2009 and had lunch in the park’s Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
With the obvious enthusiasm for the great state of Wyoming and Yellowstone Country, I am sure that the region will be welcoming many future U.S. presidents.
Until then, I’m loving life and studying history here in Buffalo Bill’s Cody/Yellowstone Country.