Guess Who Came to Dinner?

The Dalles Has Warmly Welcomed Its Share of Famous Visitors

By Rodger Nichols

The Dalles has a long and distinguished history as part of America’s political stage. At one time, it was larger than Portland, Seattle, or Spokane, Washington, so it’s not surprising that some famous people have passed through town.

Three U.S. presidents visited The Dalles while in office, as did three others who later became president and several more who ran for office but were not elected. Eight visitors to The Dalles eventually had their portraits featured on American coins or currency.

The First Visitors

Senator Robert Kennedy at The Dalles Airport in May 1968. He was assassinated in California three weeks later. Photo courtesy of the Dalles Chronicle

Native Americans have lived in the area since time immemorial. Tribal visitors have been coming to the banks of the Columbia for at least 10,000 years to trade for salmon caught at the now-drowned Celilo Falls.

The first nontribal visitors were the crew of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. They stopped for three days at what they called Rock Fort in late October 1805.

Several missionaries visited in the 1830s, including Jason Lee, who founded Willamette University; and Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, who founded the settlement along the Oregon Trail in what is now Walla Walla, Washington.

General Ulysses S. Grant briefly visited in 1852 when he was stationed at Fort Vancouver as a lieutenant. He wrote to his wife that he had bought a number of oxen, cows, and hogs from immigrants who had stopped there on the way to western Oregon. He arranged for the cattle to be fattened during the winter so he could sell them for a profit in the spring.

Suffragist Susan B. Anthony visited in 1871 and spent the night at the famed Umatilla House.

Rutherford B. Hayes was the first president to visit Oregon while in office. His trip was part of an extensive tour in 1880 that took him all over the West. He came from California by stagecoach and celebrated his 58th birthday on the steamer Wild West on his way up the Columbia River to The Dalles.

Then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon formally dedicated The Dalles Dam in 1959. Photo courtesy of Army Corps of Engineers

When the presidential party reached The Dalles, it transferred to a train, and the president gave a short speech from the caboose before heading east. At a reception on their return trip, the first lady was presented with a basket of Oregon apples.

“She looked at the fruit with amazement, and thought they must be waxwork,” one account said. “She was assured that they were apples grown around this country. On entering the carriage, she was very careful that she had her basket of fruit with her.”

Eleven years later, in 1891, President Benjamin Harrison arrived from the East by train and gave a short speech in which he praised the area and told the crowd, “I cannot but believe that it is very useful for those who are charged with public duties in Washington occasionally to move about and look into the faces of the plain, patriotic people of the country.”

William Jennings Bryan, then a congressman from Nebraska, visited The Dalles in 1895. The following year, he was the Democratic nominee for president. He ran again unsuccessfully in 1900 and 1908.

In 1902, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was set up for a performance. About 10,000 spectators attended at a time when the population of The Dalles was just 3,500 people. Fortunately, the train that carried the show included prefabricated grandstand sections that could be assembled to seat 16,000 guests.

The final sitting president to visit was Warren G. Harding in 1923. He arrived at 11:30 p.m. and spoke from his train to a waiting late-night crowd. He pleased them by saying, “Your congressman brought us a consignment of cherries today that made us wonder that Eve did not use cherries instead of apples when she offered the Great Temptation. I know that we are really going to enjoy the cherries.”

Queen Marie of Romania, the only sitting monarch to visit The Dalles, in 1926. Photo courtesy of the Dalles Chronicle

Three years later, the town was graced with real European royalty.

Queen Marie of Romania remains the only sitting monarch to visit. She was part of a motorcade of dignitaries to dedicate Sam Hill’s Maryhill Museum. Schools were let out for the morning so the children could see a real queen. A carefully organized welcoming ceremony was, as The Chronicle stated, “swept away and trampled underfoot as the crowds swarmed about the royal cortege.”

The first and only time a sitting vice president visited was in October 1959, when Richard Nixon made a formal dedication of The Dalles Dam, which had been completed two years earlier. He carried the state of Oregon in the 1960 election but lost narrowly to Democrat John F. Kennedy.

Seven months later, in May 1960, then-Senator Kennedy spoke at The Dalles Hotel, which stood where The Dalles Inn is today. Nixon may have carried the state, but Kennedy carried Wasco County, the only one of its six neighboring counties to vote Democratic.

Two elections later, his brother Sen. Robert Kennedy landed at The Dalles Airport on May 15, 1968, and was driven to the old junior high school where he spoke to a packed gymnasium. Three weeks later, he was assassinated after winning the California primary.

Hollywood came to town in 1986 when much of the TV movie “Penalty Phase” was shot at Wasco County Courthouse. Stars Peter Strauss and Melissa Gilbert were spotted on the city’s streets.

As to which of these visitors had their likenesses on American coins: Presidents Grant, Hayes, Harrison, Harding, Kennedy and Nixon all appeared on a series of dollar coins featuring each president, starting in 2007. Grant also appears on the $50 bill and Kennedy on the half-dollar. Sacagawea and Susan B. Anthony had their own series of dollar coins.