Biden the first president to visit Santa Cruz County since Bush’s stop after ’89 quake

President Theodore Roosevelt visited what is now Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park on May 11, 1903.

No, Abe Lincoln never got to fulfill his wish to visit Santa Cruz, but Benjamin Harrison and Teddy Roosevelt, marveling at our redwoods, whistle-stopped through.

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Presidential visits are rare in Santa Cruz County — unless we’re talking about the presidents of roller-coaster appreciation clubs.

President Joe Biden’s visit Thursday to Capitola and Seacliff to see first-hand the damage inflicted by the recent storms is the first official appearance in the county from a sitting president since President George H.W. Bush’s visit in the wake of the Loma Prieta earthquake in the fall of 1989.

Three days after the Loma Prieta quake, Bush walked down Pacific Avenue touring the ruins of the Pacific Garden Mall with then-Gov. George Deukmejian, then-Rep. Leon Panetta, and a scrum of local officials and media. Santa Cruz mayor Mardi Wormhoudt was Bush’s tour guide that day.

During the visit, commenting on local volunteer relief efforts, Bush referenced one of the catchphrases of his generation, “a thousand points of light,” coined on the campaign trail just the year before. “If it weren’t for these points of light — these volunteers — the cost to government would be much higher,” he said in Santa Cruz.

Since then, the bulk of regional presidential visits have been to Monterey County, including President Bill Clinton’s address at the dedication of Cal State Monterey Bay, and visits from both President Bush 41 and 43, some at the Pebble Beach pro-am golf tournament.

In Soquel Village, Andrew Gaul stacks sandbags for his tenants between storms Jan. 2.


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In Santa Cruz County, perhaps the most memorable presidential visit not related to a disaster took place in 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt was touring the West Coast by train. The presidential train first stopped in Watsonville, where TR made a quick speech to gathered locals, reminding his audience, “This is a great fruit center. California is a great fruit state.”

A bit later, the train carrying Roosevelt arrived in Santa Cruz and the famously exuberant president took a coach to downtown, stopping to make another speech on Pacific Avenue. Roosevelt was well-known for his love of the natural environment and, in his speech before hundreds gathered in Santa Cruz, he stressed the importance of preservation, at least when it came to redwoods: “We should see to it that no man, for speculative purposes or mere temporary use, exploits the groves of great trees.”

From there, Roosevelt went to see some of those great trees for himself as the president’s train chugged up through the Big Trees Pacific Railway to the Big Trees Grove in Felton, which was years later preserved as part of Henry Cowell State Park. It was his first glimpse of redwoods, and he took the occasion to criticize advertising signs that had been tacked on many of the trees. “Remember that we have to contend not merely with knavery, but with folly,” he said. (It was earlier on that same trip to the West Coast that Roosevelt met John Muir in Yosemite.)

President Theodore Roosevelt making a speech during his stop in Santa Cruz in 1903.
(Via UC Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections)

A few years before, Roosevelt’s predecessor, William McKinley, was set to visit Santa Cruz on a similar scenic jaunt. But McKinley’s wife, Ida, fell ill after the president’s visit to Monterey, and he canceled the Santa Cruz side trip.

And just a few years before McKinley’s visit, President Benjamin Harrison came to Santa Cruz via train, following much the same path as Roosevelt, stopping near Main Beach before proceeding on to the Big Trees Grove in Felton.

Abraham Lincoln, of course, never set foot in California, though legend has it that he and Mary Todd Lincoln had mused about his desire to visit the Golden State after his presidency. The scene is depicted in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” No one can predict where “Honest Abe” might have wanted to visit in California, but taking the same path that later presidents Harrison and Roosevelt took makes sense. Why wouldn’t a tall man want to marvel at tall trees?



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