President Harry Truman made a brief but pageantry-filled afternoon train stop in La Grande on May 10, 1950.
Truman’s visit on a sun-splashed day marked the first and only time a sitting U.S president has spoken to the public in La Grande.
Truman’s presentation was anything but dry for he came armed with a ready partisan wit, according to a story in the May 11, 1950, edition of The Observer.
The Democrat spoke from the rear porch of his train before 4,000 to 5,000 people.
The crowd gave Truman an enthusiastic welcome save for one person who yelled, “We’re not all Democrats here, you know.”
Truman retorted, “I’m here to convert you to the right way of living.”
Most of the people gathered for Truman’s talk were standing, but some sat on fences and caboose roofs and a few even climbed telephone poles.
Those in attendance included members of La Grande High School’s band, whose performance “received generous applause from the president,” reported The Observer article.
Truman, during his presentation, focused on the importance of this region’s timber industry. The president was delighted that it was rebounding.
“Now that it is on the upgrade, we must keep it there,” he said.
The president credited a government-subsidized housing construction boom with helping the timber industry. Truman said it was a major reason 11.5 billion board feet of timber were sold in 1949.
Truman stressed that large and small operators must continue to be allowed to harvest timber. Assuring them equal road access was an important means of guaranteeing this, he said.
Truman spoke in La Grande around 3:30 p.m. Most city merchants closed for a time because of the visit.
During his address, the president introduced his wife, Bess, whom he referred to as his “boss,” and his daughter, Margaret. After introducing them, 11 local civic leaders filed through Truman’s train car to meet the president.
Truman was asked during his presentation what he thought of the local scenery.
The president said he had been standing out on the back platform since the train entered the Grande Ronde Valley “just watching the beautiful mountains.”
Truman’s party rode in two presidential train cars. A rope cordoned off a 15-foot area around the train cars in La Grande. The president mispronounced La Grande as “La Grange” during his speech but still received generous applause.
Truman was en route to Coulee City, Washington, 226 miles northwest of La Grande, where he dedicated Grand Coulee Dam May 11. He was in the midst of what was deemed “a nonpolitical trip.”
His stop in La Grande was the fourth in Oregon he made on May 10. Truman first stopped in Ontario, where he spoke to a crowd of between 5,000 and 6,000, according to the May 11, 1950, edition of the Argus Observer in Ontario.
Truman told the crowd there he could have flown to Grand Coulee Dam from Washington, D.C., in much less time than it would take to get there by train, “but I wanted to report to the people, to come out and let them see their president cared enough about what you thought to make a report directly to them in person.”
Truman next stopped in Huntington, where he spoke to a crowd of about 300. The president talked about declining farm income, an object that did not pique the crowd’s interest.
“The crowd of 300 sun-warmed citizens who clustered near the railway crossing to see and hear him were more concerned about getting a view of him and a few snapshots of his family,” according to a story in the May 11, 1950, Baker Democrat Herald.
He next spoke in Baker City before a crowd of about 5,000 before coming to La Grande and then leaving for Pendleton.
Truman gave an hour-long address before 20,000 on the railroad depot lawn in Pendleton, which was carried on 14 Oregon radio stations, said the May 11, 1950, edition of the East Oregonian. The president spoke of imagining what it would have been like for a pioneer who had just come over the Blue Mountains to see the area where Pendleton now is.
“I’d think he must have thought he’d arrived in heaven, and I’m told that is what it is here,” the president said.
Truman’s train then went to Umatilla, where a crowd of 5,000 greeted him.
He made reference to the construction of McNary Dam, which was beginning just outside Umatilla.
“Big dams wouldn’t be built in this country if hadn’t been for the federal government,” Truman said, according to the May 11, 1950, East Oregonian.
The next day, Truman participated in the dedication of Grand Coulee Dam before beginning his return train trip to Washington, D.C., along a route that took him through Montana.