February 15, 1898: a mysterious explosion sent the U.S. battleship Maine to the bottom of Havana Harbor. Inflammatory stories in the Hearst newspapers, before and after the explosion, pushed the American government toward war with Spain. In the battles to come, a middle-aged Undersecretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, would be propelled toward the Presidency. The Arizonans fighting under him would win a debt of gratitude from the future President that would secure for their parched territory a water system to assure their economic future and their Statehood.
In 1911, a dusty motorcade of automobiles roared up the treacherous Apache Trail between Phoenix and the newly completed Roosevelt Dam. Every big fish with any claim to leadership in the small pond of Phoenix, Arizona Territory, was in that motorcade as it dusted its way along Indian School Road to the canal road, then on to Granite Reef Dam and then into the Superstition Mountains via the narrow Apache Trail. There they arrived at the world’s largest masonry dam––just completed.
Bouncing along with them, sporting a duster and hat, gold-rimmed glasses and trademark grin, was their former President, Theodore Roosevelt. He was touring the country to size-up his chances for making another run for the White House. Taft, his chosen Republican successor in the White House, was caving in to pressures from the big business wing of the party. Roosevelt’s vision of an America of family businesses and farms––or at least his vision of a government that protected its people from the worst abuses of overlarge businesses––was in jeopardy, along with his great, new National Forests and his other naturalist initiatives.
During this trip he would choose to run again for the Presidency. The warmth with which he was received around the country was deep and moving to him—and persuasive.
On that Arizona spring day in 1911, Theodore Roosevelt's motorcade rounded the dangerous curves along the Salt River below the dam. A few days earlier, a stage had run off the trail, killing the new bride of the dam’s chief electrician. A survivor of that accident was still recovering at Fish Creek on the Apache Trail; Roosevelt stopped the motorcade to pay a visit to him.
In the valley below, the little town of Phoenix held its collective breath for the motorcade’s return. This day was the town’s most excited moment, before or since. He was returning to repay a debt to Arizona, and to prepare the way for its economic success and statehood. The front page of the Arizona Republican featured a huge portrait of Roosevelt with the headline: "The First Citizen of the World." Banners were everywhere and the town was cleaned and scrubbed, right up to the pulleys of its flagpoles.
The cleanup, in fact, had its tense moments: Women's groups had been promoting the clean-up for weeks, sending sons and husbands out with pruning tools and rakes. A few days before the arrival, a panicked ladies committee met with the mayor because huge piles of debris all over the city had completely overwhelmed the town's two-man trash crew. Phoenix was a mess from over-cleaning. Even sheds and back rooms and basements had been cleaned out. evidently in the event that Mr. Roosevelt might drop by for an inspection.
The mayor's sanguine advice to the citizenry facing this crisis was as follows: "You will be surprised what will burn when a match is introduced to it," and so the crisis was resolved.
The dam dedication went smoothly. In his chirpy voice, the former President gave a long and serious speech that tested the waters for his next political campaign, even as pushed the big button (see photo) that opened the waters—waters that would secure Arizona's economic stability.
That evening, at the Ford Hotel in downtown Phoenix, Roosevelt held a reunion with his Rough Riders. These men, six years earlier, marched and rode down Pennsylvania Avenue at Roosevelt’s last Inaugural––with Roosevelt rising from his seat in his reviewing stand to cheer them on, wave his fists, and shout out their names as they passed. As to what was said at the reunion in the Ford Hotel, there is no clear record: he barred the press. When he did speak publicly, he urged Arizona leaders to drop a provision in the proposed state constitution that allowed for the recall of judges. That was a sticking point with Congress, and it had delayed the approval of Arizona’s statehood on several occasions. He reminded Arizonans that they could put it back in their constitution as soon as they got statehood. Only TR could have broken through the emotional logjam that had formed over that issue, and Arizona became a state the following year.
Amazingly, this history was a total fulfillment of Arizonan Buckey O'Neill's vision for Arizona statehood, voiced thirteen years earlier in that same banquet room. O’Neill helped to organize Arizona’s Rough Riders for the war in Cuba because he thought it would bring Arizona the respect it needed to win statehood. At the going-away banquet for the soldiers, O'Neill heard Adjutant General Lewis propose the toast: "Here we drink the soldier's toast --death or a star!" O'Neill stood and replied, "Who wouldn't gamble for another star on the flag!" That was the only war decoration he sought. On the troop ship to Cuba, O'Neill became fast friends with Theodore Roosevelt. They quoted passages of Greek history back and forth, and discussed the prospects for the coming battles. Buckey's experience as Prescott Mayor, sheriff, gambler, as Phoenix newspaper editor, as a reporter on the Tombstone Epitaph, and as a law graduate of Gonzaga, had made him a colorful companion and valued friend of the future President. On the ground in Cuba, Buckey became quickly famous for his heroism and for the extraordinary measures he took to get food supplies to all his men, dragging supplies himself through sniper-filled swamps. He was killed on Kettle Hill, in the very shadow of San Juan Hill. The next day, Theodore Roosevelt, with a half-dozen extra pairs of glasses sewn into the pockets of his uniform, mounted the only horse among the Rough Riders and led his men up the now-famous hill. He rode back and forth in front of his attacking men, urging them forward with a complete lack of concern for the thick hellstorm of bullets and artillery shells filling the air around him—perhaps protected by that great shield that seems to allow those who fully embrace their fate to finish their stories.
O'Neill's death, more than the others, was a great personal loss to Roosevelt. Decades later, he mentioned Buckey warmly in his memoirs. O’Neill’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery still bears Buckey’s own quote: "Who would not gamble for another star on the flag?"
Before battle, the Rough Riders trained and drilled and pitched their tents in the Prescott Plaza, across from the Palace Saloon and the Burke Hotel. After the War, Roosevelt became Vice President. But on September 14, 1901. a political anarchist killed President McKinley in Buffalo,
In 1902, the Newlands reclamation bill passes Congress, pushed by President Roosevelt, a great booster of reclamation and conservation. At first the bill was written to provide only for the reclamation of federally owned lands in need of irrigation. Arizona leaders, particularly George Maxwell, lobbied long and hard for the extension of the concept to privately owned lands like the Salt River Valley. A long-time friend of Roosevelt, Dwight Heard (whose home is now the Heard Museum), also actively pushed for the amendment of the bill. The bill passed, INCLUDING the Arizona provision for its use on private lands.
Roosevelt's Secretary of the Interior noted TR’s exact words in a White House meeting following the passage of the Newlands Bill: "There will be a great pressure by different senators and congressmen who will honestly think that their state has the first claims, that they have the meritorious project; and as Arizona and New Mexico have not any senators or congressmen, and as I raised three-fourths of my regiment in New Mexico and Arizona, I will take their place. And now I want to see that they get a fair deal."
That’s how Arizona got the funding (which it paid back, in full, ahead of schedule) for Roosevelt Dam and the system of dams and control canals that ended its long history of droughts and floods. Roosevelt Dam brought with it the promise of economic stability and a permanent boom––statehood could no longer be denied. At the end of that great and busy day when the dam was dedicated and the reunion was held, Roosevelt finally said his goodbye to Phoenix and departed by train. The entire town sent him tearfully off. There has not been a scene like it in the Valley, before or since. He waved to men and women gathered at rail crossings as the train worked its way west to California. “God bless you, Teddy!” they shouted, and Arizona settled back to business. When statehood came the next year, that was a pretty wild day, too––but not quite like the day Roosevelt came: that was the big one.