On July 27, 1923, Warren G. Harding spoke at Husky Stadium. It would be the last public speech the president would ever give.
Not too many people recall much about President Harding. If they do remember anything, it's usually Teapot Dome, a scandal that involved payoffs to government officials in exchange for sweetheart deals on public lands.
In the summer of 1923, President Harding traveled out west as part of his “Voyage of Understanding.” It was the president’s attempt to reconnect with the people. During that trip Harding became the first US President to visit what would eventually become Alaska. Harding left the remote northern territory and headed to Seattle via ship.
Thousands of people around the city waited to catch a glimpse of the commander in chief, but Harding was hours behind schedule. The president’s ship had collided with a Navy destroyer off Port Townsend.
Finally, just after 1:00 p.m., the presidential ship docked at Bell Street Pier and Harding got into a cream–colored open car for a whirlwind tour. First stop was Volunteer Park for dedication of a monument. Next was Woodland Park, where thousands of Boy Scouts had been waiting for hours. Then, onto the University of Washington.
Harding spoke at Husky Stadium to a crowd of more than 30,000. But something wasn't right. The 57–year–old president seemed to rush through his remarks and even stumble over some of his words.
Later that evening, after just six hours in Seattle, President Harding boarded a train at King Street Station and headed south for a visit to Portland. But as the train steamed through the darkness of Western Washington, it was clear that Harding was seriously ill. Portland was bypassed, and the entourage rolled south toward California.
Harding arrived in San Francisco and retired to a suite on the eighth floor of the Palace Hotel. All events were canceled, and the president stayed in his room.
A few nights later, most people listening to the radio in Seattle around 8:00 p.m. would have heard a recording from the Victor Opera Company called "Gems from The Mikado." In 1923, Seattle had just a handful of stations, and broadcasting only took place from 7:30 to 9:30 each night. Radio wasn't yet a regular source for news. Everyone still read daily papers and the "extras" printed for big stories like wars and sensational crimes. Radio was for music. So it came as a shock just after 8:00 p.m. that night when the music stopped.
"President Harding," said a now forgotten Seattle broadcaster, "is dead." The radio station signed off immediately.
The streets downtown filled with mourners. Harding's recent visit made his death hit a little harder than in most other places. It didn't take long for people to figure out that Harding's busiest, most public final day as president had taken place in Seattle.
Harding died late in the day when radio stations in the Pacific Time Zone were on the air and East Coast stations were silent, so it's likely that West Coast listeners were the first in American history to learn from broadcast media about the death of a president.
This story was originally broadcast on July 27, 2012.