A Presidential Visit: “Looking Back”

One hundred years ago, on January 6, 1919, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., the 26th President of the United States died in his sleep at the age of 60. A blood clot detached from a vein and traveled to his lungs in his final hours. He had suffered asthma as a child and continued to have breathing problems all his life. He had a breathing treatment right before bedtime.

Vice President Thomas R. Marshall said upon hearing the news, “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.” After a private farewell service in the North Room at Sagamore Hill, his home on the north shore of Long Island, a simple funeral was held at Christ Episcopal Church in nearby Oyster Bay and he was buried at Youngs Memorial Cemetery. The snow-covered route was lined with spectators.

Less than seven years earlier, President Roosevelt had made a brief stop in Conway as part of his campaign tour for the presidency. He had left the office in 1909 to President William Howard Taft but after his return from an African safari and a tour of Europe, he decided that he needed to resume leadership because Taft had failed to carry on as Roosevelt would have liked.

Presidential visits to Arkansas were rare historic events until after World War II because of the difficulty of travel so his visit was considered a very special honor for the state. In April 1912, Roosevelt traveled by train from Ft. Smith to Carlisle in Lonoke County, stopping at Ft. Smith, Ozark, Clarksville, Russellville, Conway, Argenta (NLR) and Carlisle as part of his campaign tour.

Roosevelt was extraordinarily popular in Arkansas and considered himself to be “half Southern” because his mother was born in Georgia. He had built numerous post offices in the state and had created two national forests—the Ozark and Arkansas National Forests—during his earlier administration.

At Conway, Roosevelt delivered a speech from the rear of his private rail car. Two thousand Faulkner County citizens turned out and were able to view him for only two minutes, as he was an hour behind schedule. He was introduced to the crowd by John Bruce Cox of Little Rock, a native of Conway.

The former president waved his broad-brimmed hat and gave the crowd one of his famous smiles. After greeting them he said, “In this campaign, we stand for decent politics, decent citizenship and decent Americanism.”

His train then left Conway but was delayed for yet another hour after it pulled away. It was only a half-mile away from the depot when a hot journal box required the train to stop. This meant that the axle bearing overheated due to bad oil or wheels with hand breaks applied. This friction usually caused a spectacular display of sparks.

The train had to stop because, if left unchecked, it could have caused a derailment. Roosevelt’s special car was ultimately attached to the engine of the No. 103 daily train and the crippled engine was left behind to pull the passenger train after repairs had been made.

That summer, Roosevelt failed to get the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, so he created a third party, the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party. He made another trip back to Little Rock on September 25 to deliver a non-political speech to the Deep Waterways Convention—a speech which included a vision of developing the Arkansas River.

On October 14, 1912, he was shot by a John Flammang Schrank, a saloonkeeper in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The bullet lodged in his chest after penetrating his steel eyeglass case and passing through a 50-page copy of a speech he was carrying in his jacket. Instead of going to the hospital immediately, Roosevelt delivered his scheduled speech with blood seeping into his shirt. He spoke for 90 minutes and then accepted medical attention. X-rays showed that the bullet lodged in his chest muscle. Doctors concluded it would be less dangerous to leave it there and so he carried it with him the rest of his life.

In November 1912, The Democrat Woodrow Wilson swept the state while the Republican Taft polled 24,385 votes to Roosevelt’s 21,601, even though Roosevelt ran ahead of Taft in twenty-five counties. The Progressive Party in Arkansas disappeared as rapidly as it had appeared.

Numerous invitations were extended to the former President to come and hunt bear in Arkansas, but he never accepted any of them. He did, however, appreciate the abundant wildlife and natural resources in the state, characterizing Arkansas as the “Wonder State,” a state slogan that was used for many years.

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.