ArtBeat: Harding's train becomes Christmas ornament -- but not Harding's Alaska train

Mike Dunham

There was a flurry of excitement in the newsroom when a call came in last month announcing the selection of the 2014 White House Christmas Ornament. It should be exciting to Alaskans, the initial call said, because it will be a miniature version of “the train that brought President Harding to Alaska.”

Well, not quite. The ornament is of the Superb, the private heavyweight Pullman car that carried President Warren G. Harding across the country en route to Alaska in 1923. But then, as now, there was no rail connection between Alaska and the contiguous United States. Harding caught a boat to Alaska and, once here, rode (and even drove) the brand-new Alaska Railroad to drive the “golden spike” at Nenana, ceremonially completing the line from Seward to Fairbanks. For that leg of the trip, he actually rode on the Denali, another luxury private car, which is now on display at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks.

The sad end of Harding’s trip — he died shortly after returning from Alaska and his casket was solemnly borne back to Washington, D.C., on the same Superb that had taken him west — has overshadowed the facts of the first visit by an American president to the territory. The few details that pop out often seem at odds with one another.

For instance, I had heard that the route involved taking the train from Seward to Fairbanks, then taking cars down the Richardson Highway to Valdez and catching the boat back to the States there. However, no readily available history source confirmed that. Most of them took the tale as far as Fairbanks and then leapfrogged back to San Francisco without specifying how it was done. Phone calls and emails to some well-known Alaska historians didn’t clarify things. A look at newspapers of the day helped.

The Alaska excursion started in Southeast, where Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, an avid angler, reveled in fishing opportunities. A photo in the State Archive shows him holding a long line of bass caught near Juneau. (Mrs. Hoover was the most consistently complimented member of the entourage in the coverage that I read.) Other interesting photos show the president in Seward, where he was inducted into the Arctic Brotherhood, and can be seen in an interesting new book by Ashley Bowman, “The Arctic Brotherhood: The Story of Alaska-Yukon’s Most Influential Order.”

After visiting several Panhandle communities, the party arrived in Seward and took the train to the festivities in Nenana and then to Fairbanks. Then they drove to College, where the president made an address on a very warm Interior summer day.

But the proposed excursion down the Richardson was vetoed by Mrs. Harding, who was not feeling well. Thus Harding returned via rail to Seward, got back on the boat, made another stop or three in Alaska and then headed for British Columbia, San Francisco and his encounter with the Grim Reaper.

Harding, along with James Buchanan and whoever is in the White House at any given moment, is often cited — perhaps not altogether fairly — as “the worst president ever.” In Harding’s case, the opprobrium mostly stems from a scandal involving the leases of public lands that he may or may not have known about, a usurpation of public trust and money that seemed enormous at the time but pales in comparison to contemporary crony capitalism.

But when digging around in such histories, one sometimes bumps into information not often cited by detractors, information that shines an unexpectedly positive light on the person in question. For instance, I was surprised to hear about Harding’s treatment of Eugene Debs.

Debs, a popular speaker and Socialist candidate for president, was thrown in jail by Harding’s predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, for the crimes of daring to run against Wilson and suggesting that American involvement in the Great World War might not be the best idea. Even with the war over, Wilson refused to let Debs out of the pokey, where he was reported to be in failing health. Among Harding’s first official acts was to release the old Socialist; not only that, he then invited him to the White House.

I imagine an interesting conversation ensued.

Back to the ornament.

The White House Christmas Ornament is created each year by the White House Historical Association, a nonprofit education group that works to acquire art and antiques for the Executive Mansion and contributes to the conservation of the residence’s public rooms. This is the first time they’ve issued an ornament in two pieces: the Superb and a steam locomotive (several different engines did the pulling on the cross-country trip). More information can be found at shop.whitehousehistory.org

The Superb, which had also served as the presidential car for Wilson, had a career as luxury rolling stock for a couple of decades, then was retooled for various uses by various owners. It was retired in 1969 and now resides at the Southeastern Railway Museum in Duluth, Georgia. It doesn’t seem to be in very good shape.

The Denali, on the other hand, has been nicely restored and placed under a protective roof and is now an information center at Pioneer Park, where I visited it in early July. I also stopped by the paddle-wheel steamer Nenana, where a very good diorama has been set up showing the communities along the Tanana and Yukon Rivers as they looked in the ship’s heyday.

P.S. It's just five months till Christmas.

‘Sila’ breathes in New York

Composer John Luther Adams, formerly of Fairbanks, had his latest world premiere on July 18 and 19 when “Sila: The Breath of the World” was presented outdoors at Lincoln Center’s Hearst Plaza in New York. The 70-minute work featured five separate groups of instruments and voices playing “in autonomous interdependence.” The music of the score competed -- or perhaps harmonically converged -- with the rumble of the the city.

Band of the Pacific returns

Another former Alaska musical entity, the U.S. Air Force Band of the Pacific, will return for a free outdoor concert at 5 p.m. Friday, July 25. The band, now based in Hawaii, will present a three-hour performance in Town Square. Food, beer and wine will be available. Fans may notice a slightly Hawaiian pop sound to some of the tunes.

Plein Air painting

A final reminder that the annual Plein Air Weekend takes place 10 a.m.-6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, July 26-27. Outdoor painters will have booths and tables showing off their art and demonstrating their artistry. The event is a benefit for Clare House. The address is 5801 Barry Ave. To get there, take O’Malley to Birch, turn south (that’s right if you’re going uphill) and the next left will be Barry.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.