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President Harding’s Voyage of Understanding

In June 1923, President Warren G. Harding embarked on an ambitious journey across the United States. Called the “Voyage of Understanding,” the historic trip included the first visit of a sitting president to the U.S. territory of Alaska, as well as the first international visit of an American president to Canada. The voyage also marked the final weeks of Harding’s life; before he could complete his return to Washington, the president suddenly died from a heart attack. Stereographic photography from the time period offers an unusual, three-dimensional glimpse of Harding’s voyage and funeral procession. Click on the play button below the images in the gallery to recreate the illusion of depth offered by the stereograph cards as viewed through a stereoscope.

In the summer of 1923, President Warren G. Harding faced many challenges. Numerous allegations of his administration’s mis-dealings swirled about in the press, threatening the incumbent’s chance of reelection in 1924. Hoping to distance himself from the scandals of Washington, Harding branded his travels as a “Voyage of Understanding,” a chance to personally connect with voters across the country, and explore the remote regions of Alaska. Despite his doctors’ warnings against the demanding, nearly two-month-long trip, President Harding and First Lady Florence Harding departed from the White House on June 20, 1923.

They travelled across the continental United States aboard a private Pullman train car named the Suberb. Along the way, Harding paused at iconic American landmarks and natural wonders including the Old Faithful geyser at Yellowstone National Park, and the Navajo Sandstone cliffs of Zion National Park. He met with people from many states including Kansas, Utah, Montana, Idaho, and Oregon. The president learned about irrigation systems, Native American communities, and local heritage sites, while the public had the opportunity to see a more personal side of their president. Harding then journeyed north to the Alaskan territory, where he witnessed the stunning beauty of glaciers, drove in the final spike of the Alaska Railroad, and met with people from cities, towns, and villages including Sitka, Juneau, Fairbanks, Seward, Ketchikan, and Metlakatla. Before returning south, Harding stopped in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he reviewed Canadian troops and was honored with a parade.

Though the president enjoyed his travels, the strenuous journey took a toll on his health. On August 2, 1923, President Harding and his travel party stopped in San Francisco, California, to make preparations for their return. That night, the president was resting in his room at the Palace Hotel when he suddenly died, likely from an abrupt and fatal heart attack. The news stunned the nation, and Vice President Calvin Coolidge was quickly sworn in as the new president. As the Superb made its solemn return trip, it was met by an outpouring of public grief. Although the “Voyage of Understanding” was originally intended to help a politician better understand his country, in the end, it enabled a country to remember its fallen leader.

The videos in this gallery are derived from a series of stereograph cards produced by the Keystone View Company in 1923. The images from the stereograph cards were animated for the gallery using Abobe Photoshop, and inspired by Joshua Heineman’s “Stereogranimator” project for the New York Public Library, and Shannon Perich’s 3-D animations of Civil War scenes from the Smithsonian Photographic History Collection. The series of stereograph cards was purchased by the White House Historical Association in 2014, and digitized for the Association’s Digital Library.