Theodore Roosevelt’s 1903 Visit to the Grand Canyon in Arizona


Theodore Roosevelt is well remembered for helping lead the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment (better known as the Rough Riders) in Cuba during the Spanish American War. He became well acquainted with many of the Rough Riders, most of whom hailed from Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and the Indian Territory.

This familiarity with residents of these frontier territories increased his already intense fascination with the American West, and less than two years after becoming president, TR decided to visit Arizona and other western areas to experience them firsthand. On April 1,1903 he embarked on a two-month tour on which he would travel 14,000 miles and visit 150 communities, giving approximately 200 speeches.

President Theodore Roosevelt Arrives at the Grand Canyon

At 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday, May 6, the six-car train carrying Theodore Roosevelt and other officials arrived at the Flagstaff, Arizona train station. Locals hoped to get a glimpse of the president, but Roosevelt never emerged from his car during the short stop to replenish water.

The Santa Fe train soon left Flagstaff and headed west to Williams, where it then turned north along the Grand Canyon Railway. It arrived at the Grand Canyon station, near the Bright Angel Hotel, at 9:30 a.m. Roosevelt disembarked and soon was on horseback to survey the area.

In the meantime, 301 Flagstaff residents, including local officials, a band, and members of Flagstaff High School’s recent graduating class, boarded a canyon-bound train at 6 a.m. The Flagstaffians arrived at 11 a.m. and were greeted by the president, who had just finished his horseback ride.

TR Gives Speech to 800 People at the Grand Canyon Hotel

The Flagstaff contingent joined another 500 Roosevelt supporters in front of the Grand Canyon Hotel, where Roosevelt gave a speech from the hotel’s balcony. He was introduced by Arizona Territorial Governer and former Rough Rider Alexander Brodie.

Roosevelt began his speech by recognizing Arizona as the home of many of his Rough Rider comrades, including the inspirational Bucky O’Neill and Brodie. He also pointed out that this was his first visit to Arizona, and that the territory was important as one of the regions that he was targeting for development as part of his proposed irrigation act.

The president then waxed about the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, including the now-famous sentiment, “I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the loneliness and beauty of the canyon.

“Leave it as it is. Man cannot improve upon it; not a bit. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, should see.”

Roosevelt finished by expounding on his “square deal” agenda, “All I ask is a square deal for every man. Give him a fair chance; do not let him wrong anyone, and do not let him be wronged. Help as far as you can, without hurting in helping him, for the only way to help a man in the end is to help a man to help himself.”

Roosevelt Hands Out Diplomas, Receives Arizona-themed Gifts

After Roosevelt finished his speech, the principle of Flagstaff High School introduced each of the school’s five graduating seniors (Denny Hibben, Helen Merritt, Esther Hibben, Edna Vail, Amelia Jacoby) to the president, who presented each student with a diploma and a few words of encouragement. The students then gave Roosevelt a pair of colorfully decorated Navajo buckskin boots.

After this ceremony, the president did more sightseeing, accompanied by the Arizona Lumber and Timber Company band. TR then held a private reception in his rail car at 5:30 p.m., at which time Flagstaff community leaders Fred Sisson, C.J. Babbitt and others presented Roosevelt with a Navajo blanket, a gift which the president greatly enjoyed.

After telling the group that the stop at the Grand Canyon was the most enjoyable part of his trip, Roosevelt bid everyone farewell and left on the train at 6 p.m., headed west to continue his western survey.