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Just Passing Through…FDR in Orange County

Paul Wormser, Library Director

Paul Wormser, Library Director

In May of 1935 Harry Welsh, Secretary of the Newport Harbor Chamber of Commerce, was working with community leaders to plan a celebration to mark the opening of Newport Harbor. So, when a local newspaper ran a small item announcing President Franklin D. Roosevelt was planning a trip to California in July 1935, he took action immediately.  He wrote in a letter to another ardent Newport Beach promoter, Dr. Albert Soiland, “Perhaps we could arrange to have [the President] stop off and pull a switch or some other ceremony in connection with the work at the Harbor…Looks like a real opportunity to get some exceedingly valuable publicity.” 

Soiland, a medical doctor who pioneered the use of radiology to combat cancer, Welsh knew had connections in Washington, D.C. For years, he had served as an officer in the Navel Reserves, and in that capacity he became friends with Ross McIntire, the Surgeon General of the Navy, and the personal physician to President Roosevelt. He hoped his friend could help him meet with the President.

 

On July 24, Soiland, through his connection with Dr. McIntire, had a private 10-minute audience with the President, who he wrote “I found a strong, robust and vitally active executive, keenly alert to the tremendous responsibilities which are truly his.”  

Following the meeting, Soiland sent a telegraph to Harry Welsh, “IN A PRIVATE AUDIENCE WITH PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT TODAY WAS ASSURED THAT PRESIDENT PLANS AT ADJOURNMENT OF CONGRESS CONTEMPLATES A TRIP TO CALIFORNIA A VISIT TO NEWPORT BAY AND A SAIL DOWN TO SAN DIEGO ON THE SCHOONER YACHT VIKING FOURTH THE MIDDLE OR LATTER PART OF SEPTEMBER.”

 

Telegram sent by Dr. Soiland to Harry Welsh following a meeting with FDR. From the Records of the Newport Harbor Chamber of Commerce, Sherman Library.

All seemed to be set, until the White House announced that the President would travel by train from Los Angeles to San Diego, bypassing Newport Beach entirely. 

 When the White House announced FDR would visit California in 1938, Harry Welsh again lead a push to have him stop at Newport Beach. Welsh’s plan this time was to have FDR briefly view Newport Harbor before receiving framed photographs of the harbor and the 1937 Flight of the Snowbirds race.  Welsh hoped that the President’s love of sailing would entice him to stop at Newport. This time Soiland was unable to meet with the President, however.  Try as they might Welsh and Soiland could not secure a Newport Beach visit.  Instead, Harry Welsh drove to Los Angeles to present the framed photos to the Presidents’ secretary, but arrived late, so the items were sent directly on the President’s baggage car. 

A photograph of FDR's motorcade on Coast Highway passing the intersection with Marguerite, in Corona del Mar. The President is in the second car, just passing the Corona del Mar Civic Center. From the Sherman Library Photograph Collection.

The President only scheduled two Orange County stops on his July 16, 1938 drive through Orange County. The first stop was scheduled for a two-minute speech in Huntington Beach, which he skipped, and the second was San Clemente State Beach to enjoy a picnic lunch. 

People in communities all along Coast Highway between Los Angeles and San Diego came out to see the President of the United States and his motorcade.  In Newport Beach, the largest crowd was at the Dover St. Bridge.  From that vantage point, the President could have seen newly completed Newport Harbor, filled with boats sailing in his honor.  Roosevelt rode in a black open-top sedan, waving his hat to spectators.  The lead car carried Secret Service officers and California Highway Patrol officers on motorcycles providing protection.  He passed through the city in a matter of minutes.

FDR made only one unscheduled stop in Orange County, which happened when people in Laguna Beach crowded Coast Highway, briefly blocking the presidential motorcade.  Laguna Beach mayor Howard Heisler used the disruption to introduce artist Frank Cuprien, who gave a painting to the President.