The President on Parade: William McKinley at La Fiesta de las Flores, Los Angeles, 9 May 1901

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The 25th President of the United States, William McKinley, Jr. (1843-1901), was born in Ohio, served in the Union Army during the Civil War, was a lawyer, served fourteen years in the House of Representatives, and was a two-term governor of Ohio before winning election as president in 1896.

While the Republican was long known as an expert on tariffs and enacted America’s highest rates on this trade component that is now a major issue with China, his first term was dominated by foreign policy matters, especially the Spanish-American War, during which the United States expanded its imperialist portfolio by seizing Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam.

Full page McKinley The_Los_Angeles_Times_Thu__May_9__1901_
Los Angeles Times, 9 May 1901.

Facing another presidential campaign against the Democratic populist William Jennings Bryan, McKinley easily won reelection in 1900 and celebrated the following spring by taking a nationwide train tour.  One of his stops was in Los Angeles, during which, on this day in 1901, he was the guest of honor for the downtown street parade during the Los Fiesta de las Flores festival, which has been covered here in several previous posts.

There had been one other president who’d visited the City of Angels, but the quick trip of Rutherford Hayes in 1880 was demonstrably less celebrated or promoted than that of McKinley just over two decades later—a telling example of how dramatically Los Angeles changed during that period.

Otis hosts McKinley The_Los_Angeles_Times_Thu__May_9__1901_ (1)
Times, 9 May 1901.

McKinley arrived in the city on the 8th and was feted at a dinner held at “The Bivouac,” the eclectic home of the powerful publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Harrison Gray Otis, who happened to be a native of Ohio.  The president and some of his entourage spent the night at the residence, as well.

Small wonder then that Otis’ paper devoted a great deal of ink to celebrating the arrival of the president and lionizing McKinley during his stay. Interestingly, the photographs accompanying the Times article on the dinner were showing the house and its interior, not any of the president.

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Times, 10 May 1901.

Documentation of the visit was not just through print, however.  Unlike the Hayes visit, there are many photographs of McKinley’s short stay in Los Angeles and some of those from the Homestead’s collection are highlighted in this post.

As to press coverage, a full page of the Times  was devoted to minute detail of McKinley’s day in the city.  First, though, the paper had to express its view of the importance of the visit:

Los Angeles has spoken its welcome to the President, and he has responded to the greeting in the spirit in which it was given.  There can be no doubt as to the heartiness of the tender of hospitality or the manner of its acceptance.

The President has come to remain a little while with the good people of the City of the Angels and to mingle with them as much as his strength and the limited time he may lay aside the cares of his high office, will permit.

From the moment of his arrival in the city, at 2:30 o’clock yesterday afternoon, Los Angeles virtually became the temporary capital of the nation, for the Chief Executive and the members of his cabinet accompanying him brought with them the responsibilities of their exalted positions, and will administer from this remote station the affairs of government during their brief sojourn here.

The paper described McKinley’s arrival with a greeting from thousands and noise from music, steam whistles, bells and guns firing salutes.  After members of the cabinet disembarked from the train, the Times claimed that “expectancy became intense” before “a knightly figure was seen.”  A roar rose from the crowd and many surged toward the platform of the car in which McKinley emerged and bowed several times to an adoring audience before he returned to retrieve the First Lady.

Wine ad McKinley The_Los_Angeles_Times_Fri__May_10__1901_
Times, 10 May 1901.

As the presidential carriage made its way west on Fifth Street from the Arcade Depot situated near the Los Angeles River, the paper stated,

There was a wild rush of the spectators to keep abreast of it.  The stream of humanity was like the onward rush of a mighty river.  Nothing could stop its flow.  People caught in the current were borne along with it in spite of their efforts to resist.  The stream flowed steadily toward the Van Nuys Hotel.

At that hostelry, Mayor Meredith P. Snyder officially welcomes the President and his party and McKinley had a public reception in the Van Nuys lobby, shaking hands with the hordes outside.  When the doors were closed after many a direct greeting, the President was quoted as asking “is there not some way in which I can gratify my wish  of that immense crowd of fellow-citizens who are denied entrance here?”   He asked if there was a balcony from which he could speak to the throngs outside on the street and was directed to a room that fit the bill.  With a few remarks to many cheers, McKinley stepped back inside and the crowd dispersed.

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The reviewing stand from which the President, First Lady and entourage viewed the La Fiesta de las Flores parade on 9 May 1901.

The First Lady had left to attend a reception at a women’s club house on Figueroa Street and the President decided, apparently on a whim, to go there and “he created the greatest kind of sensation.”  He then gathered up Mrs. McKinley, who was reported to have been fatigued, and headed to the Otis residence on Wilshire Boulevard west of downtown for dinner and the overnight stay.

As to the reception they received, McKinley was said to have remarked, “I have never seen anything like the enthusiasm of these people . . . there is not a grim visage anywhere among them,” while the First Lady added, “These are a pleasant, cheerful, kindly people, whom it is a great pleasure to see.”

5517 President McKinley In Flower Embroidered Carriage Los Angel
A stereoscopic photograph of the President and First Lady in a horse-drawn flower-covered carriage during the La Fiesta parade.

With respect to the La Fiesta parade, the Times claimed “the world waits to see how we said ‘howdy-do’ to the President.  The fact that we happen to be giving a party at the same time adds to the flavor of the headlines and snapshots.”  With the Fiesta launched, the paper continued, “lights swung in large festoons of reds and greens and orange—stood out in spikes of brilliancy along the curbs and hung in ropes of blazing polka-dots where the streets joined, so that every corner was a royal canopy of light.”

So illuminated with electric lamps, the city was filled with people, but “there was a sound of revelry, but not of boisterousness.”  Moreover, “everybody was in good humor and in happy expectancy of the coming of the Chief Executive of the nation and his entourage today.”  Details were given of decorations in downtown, including at the Van Nuys, the Germain Seed Company, the Orpheum Theatre, the locations of the consuls of Great Britain, Italy, Mexico, and others.

President and First Lady McKinley LA 1901_20190507_0001
This recent museum acquisition, though badly “silvered”, shows the President and First Lady in the same vehicle from the above image.

Images of McKinley, the First Lady, and others from the parade show them in a vehicle and at a reviewing stand and some examples from the Homestead’s holdings are included here.  Though it was a brief visit, the visit of the President to Los Angeles at the dawn of the 20th century may be considered a signal moment in the maturity of the metropolis as it continued its rapid rise as one of the chief cities in the nation and the leading one on the West Coast, though San Francisco still had more people in 1901.


4 thoughts

  1. Paul Spitzzeri is a fine writer! I love his pieces and how he seamlessly adds the copies of the historical docs while creating an interesting read. What is his background, where does he obtain his sources and what tips can he offer to a novice like me trying to tell my story about Hollywoodland?

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