President Theodore Roosevelt believed in big sticks. Even in 1900, when he was only the Governor of New York before he ran for vice-president under William McKinley, he wrote, “I have always been fond of the West African proverb: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.’” That aphorism came in handy the following year when Roosevelt became president after McKinley was assassinated.
While he was party to several notable events that displayed that ideology, none more blatantly showcased it to the entire world than the voyage of the aptly named Great White Fleet during the last two years of Roosevelt’s presidency. From December 16, 1907 to February 22, 1909, 16 steel-hulled battleships, along with a changing flotilla of lesser-sized escort ships, circumnavigated the globe and paid “courtesy” visits of goodwill to coastal countries. The ostentatious display of peaceful power left no doubt in the minds of foreign governments as to the United States’ growing military might that was able to enforce treaties and adequately protect American sea-faring interests. While these types of floating military parades were not uncommon in that era, they still communicated America’s Big Stick message loud and clear.
The fleet was divided into multiple squadrons and divisions with several rear admirals taking a stint of command throughout the fourteen-month itinerary. 14,000 sailors manned the vessels that traversed 43,000 nautical miles and made twenty port calls on six continents. The impressive naval parade was named the Great White Fleet due to the battleships’ hulls being painted white, designating a peacetime mission.
Grand ceremonies and festivities, both on the water and on land, accompanied the fleet’s arrival in any port, especially on the American seaboard. For weeks in advance, the media heightened the public’s interest in the imminent appearance of the great armada with headline news of the upcoming marine spectacle.
San Francisco, California became the final destination point of the first leg of the voyage after sailing close to 15,000 nautical miles for almost five months around the tip of South America before crossing the Pacific.
For eleven days, the entire city planned to party extravagantly. It is hard to imagine that any other port outdid them in the variety of events offered. Celebrations included formal ceremonies and receptions, showy military parades and precision drills, nighttime illuminations, outdoor concerts and music, grand balls and common community dances, prestigious luncheons and lavish dinners, athletic events and tournaments, auto and ship tours, yacht cruises, boat races and even religious services culminating in special Sunday prayers for the safety of the fleet in all area churches.
Mayor Mott of San Francisco, after lengthy negotiations, secured approval from Colonel Lopez of the Lighthouse Service along with other naval officials, to open the deforested hillside area adjacent to the Yerba Buena Lighthouse on Goat Island for public viewing for thousands of people to witness the event from there. It was the first time any permission had been granted for the public to descend en masse onto the government’s island reservation, but the mayor wanted to ensure that every resident of Alameda County could view the arrival of the fleet since waterfront areas in the harbor were limited.
Boats and ferries ran from the Key Route pier to the lighthouse wharf bringing the many thousands out to enjoy the spectacle from the island. Newspaper articles recommended that those going to Goat Island should bring “an American flag of suitable size” to wave, food and water, but leave behind any alcoholic beverages.
When the greatly anticipated day finally arrived on May 6, 1908, front page newspaper headlines trumpeted, “Atlantic Fleet Enters San Francisco Bay Amid Scenes of the Wildest Enthusiasm,” “Hundreds of Thousands View Monster Ships of War File Into Harbor,” “San Francisco is Fleet Wild,” “Greatest Crowd in the History of the Western Metropolis Went Mad With Patriotism When the Floating Fortresses Dropped Anchor in the Bay.”
The Berkeley Daily Gazette reported, “Never in the world’s history has there been such a magnificent spectacle as that presented when the combined fleets, 43 ships of war, led by the flagship Connecticut, with good old “Fighting Bob” Evans on the bridge plowed its way down though the Golden Gate between the high cliffs, black with humanity, adding a mighty flesh-and-blood welcome to the myriad artificial signals of welcome to the ships and men upon whom devolves the task of upholding the nation’s honor at home and abroad.”
But out of the hundreds of thousands of people who welcomed the fleet that day, none showed more patriotism and pride than 19-year-old Estelle Ingersoll, daughter of lighthouse keeper John F. Ingersoll of Point Bonita Lighthouse. It was Estelle’s single honor to officially dip the American flag in salute as the flagship Connecticut entered San Francisco Bay; and it was to her, alone, that the Connecticut returned whistles blown in response.
California Governor James Gillette, who was in attendance with other high-ranking officials for the small ceremony, dubbed Estelle the “heroine of the day,” as Keeper John Ingersoll, dressed in his full Lighthouse Service uniform, proudly looked on. It was remarkable that out of all the thousands of aristocrats, politicians and notables in San Francisco at that time, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter was chosen for that prestigious honor.
Meanwhile, over on the slopes next to Yerba Buena Lighthouse, 1st assistant keeper John P. Kofod’s family and relatives gathered to wave flags and take photos of the momentous historic event. They had a prime viewing location from the comfort of their own backyard.
John’s wife, Meta, was an avid photographer and along with the fleet’s arrival, she documented parades, drills, and tours aboard vessels. It was clear that many keepers’ families from the lighthouses surrounding San Francisco enjoyed their premium viewing locations and participated in festivities whenever they could.
In addition to the grand happenings at San Francisco, fleet sightings were noted and viewed from several other lighthouses along the Pacific Coast during the time the fleet was in American waters. Many national newspapers mentioned the fleet being anchored off the Old Point Loma Lighthouse in San Diego, California on April 14 in an opulent nighttime illumination.
“For three hours, every vessel was outlined in fire. Thousands of incandescent bulbs were strung along deck lines, up military masts, far out on the signal yardarms, up and down the huge funnels, and down to the water’s edge, stem and stern. The glow of the lights flooded the sea for thousands of yards away, the gleaming outlines shimmering in phantom-like reflections.
“During all this radiant display, the old lighthouse marking the rounding point to the north - Point Loma’s beacon - flashed its alternating red and white signals in domestic simplicity and wholly unmindful of the spectacle the coming of the ships and their illumination afforded. The thousands who journeyed from San Diego to the beaches of Coronado to witness the arrival of the fleet remained to view the beauties offered by the night.”
Other newspapers reported the last battleship of the armada sailing past the San Luis Obispo Lighthouse at 4PM on April 30th in front of a “mass of seething humanity” who had turned out to witness the event. And on May 2, “Miss Laura Hecox [keeper of Santa Cruz Lighthouse] telephoned to the Sentinel last night that the searchlights at Monterey could be easily seen from the lighthouse last night.”
If all the logbooks from lighthouses along the Pacific Coast could be examined over the months of April through June, 1908, there would doubtless be many entries mentioning other sightings of the fleet anchoring near or sailing past the lights. For once, the keepers of the U.S. Lighthouse Service were treated to front row VIP seats to one of the most important historic events of their era without ever having to leave their isolated posts. They could also feel pride that their lights were offering guidance and protection to America’s Great White Fleet as it fulfilled its mission of peaceful power manifested to the entire world.
This story appeared in the
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