Steve Cottrell — Echoes from our past: An unscheduled president
Special to The Union
The recent release of Michael F. Blake’s “Go West, Mr. President: Theodore Roosevelt’s Great Loop Trip of 1903” — chronicling TR’s historic whistle-stop tour that focused on the American West — reminded me of how three Nevada County men arranged for Roosevelt’s train to stop at Colfax long enough for the president to receive a special gift.
The ambitious 1903 tour by rail took the president through 25 states in nine weeks — a 14,000-mile round trip that began and ended in Washington, D.C. As Roosevelt made his way along what author Blake described as the Great Loop, he delivered more than 250 speeches, including one at the Colfax train station. This is the story of how that unscheduled stop came to be.
On May 13, while the president was in San Francisco preparing to join John Muir for a tour of Yosemite, William Englebright, representing Nevada City, and Charles Clinch, from Grass Valley, sent the president’s personal secretary, William Loeb, a telegram requesting an opportunity to present TR with a gift on behalf of the Nevada County Promotion Committee.
Roosevelt’s schedule was heavily publicized, so Englebright and Clinch knew that following his visit to Yosemite, the president would be taking a side trip to Nevada, then heading west from Reno to Sacramento on May 19. A short ceremony at the Colfax depot was all they asked for, but Loeb took a pass on the offer. “The president thanks you cordially, and very much regrets that the itinerary as already arranged will not permit him to stop in Colfax,” he said in a May 13 telegram to Englebright.
That might have deterred most people, but Englebright and Clinch knew something Loeb apparently didn’t know, so they sent him another telegram, this time adding the name of James Hague — owner of the North Star Mine in Grass Valley and longtime friend of Roosevelt — as a promotion committee member.
“While we do not wish to be persistent,” the follow-up telegram began, “we cannot forbear making another effort to secure a chance to present a token which is entirely representative of our great mining district.” The “token” for TR was a glass-covered manzanita case with gold samples from more than a dozen Nevada County mines.
Then, with a hint of sarcasm, came information that Loeb couldn’t ignore: “We understand from the railroad people that the train will stop in Colfax for about five minutes during which time the wheels are examined. Now, if the president will allow us the honor of presenting our testimonial during these five minutes, we will be very grateful.”
The Nevada County men knew that when westbound trains steamed down the long, steep grade off Donner Summit, pieces of steel sometimes chipped off the wheels — hence the need for a routine inspection at Colfax. That fact, coupled with including Hague’s name on the follow-up telegram, prompted Loeb to advise the promotion committee that a brief ceremony at the Colfax station would be added to the president’s tight schedule.
William Loeb had been outmaneuvered, but politics being politics, California Gov. George Pardee — perhaps unaware of the May 13 exchange of telegrams and the case of gold samples — wired the local promotion committee and took credit for the schedule change.
“I have arranged for the president to stop at Colfax five minutes and speak from the rear of his train,” Pardee claimed. “He is pressed for time, but will give the people a chance to see and hear him.”
On the afternoon of May 19, 1903, when the president’s train arrived in Colfax, there were thousands of people waiting, mostly from Nevada City and Grass Valley. And after Superior Court Judge Frank Nilon presented TR with the gold, the president exuberantly announced, “I’m so happy to be in Nevada County,” to which a spectator yelled, “You’re in Placer County!” — a geographical correction drowned out by the roar of the huge crowd.
As Roosevelt spoke from the train’s rear platform, Englebright, Clinch and Hague stood below on the tracks. And when TR spotted his old friend, he leaned over and asked Hague to climb aboard and join him for the 50-mile trip to Sacramento. The unscheduled event at Colfax took less than 15 minutes, but the determined Nevada County Promotion Committee had accomplished its mission.
Three years later, William Englebright was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives, where he served until 1911. And in addition to being a Grass Valley mayor and fire chief, Charles Clinch was a delegate to three national Republican conventions.
As for mine owner James Hague, he and President Roosevelt had an intriguing discussion on the way to Sacramento. And that conversation will be the subject of next month’s history column.
Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at email@example.com.
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