When JFK Visited Colorado

Governor Stephen McNichols, President John F. Kennedy, and U. S. Senator John Carroll pose outdoors at the Pueblo Public School Stadium in Pueblo

As we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, some commentators have mentioned his lack of concern for the American West and the issues important to Westerners. A recent editorial in the Denver Post commented that Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior under Kennedy, was left to run his own ship because Kennedy did not care enough about the issues effecting the West to intervene. For Udall and Westerners, this lack of oversight was a blessing in disguise. Udall used his tenure under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to greatly expand our public lands (including national parks and monuments), and to help push through environmental legislation. Yet this talk about Kennedy’s lack of attention to the West omits the fact that he visited our State of Colorado three times: once as a presidential candidate and twice as president. Each time, he was received by thousands of citizens who mobbed the streets to see him.

President Kennedy campaigned in Denver on September 24, 1960. Over 25,000 people came to see him, with 15,000 lining the presidential motorcade route from Stapleton Airport to Civic Center, and another 8,000 people cramming into Civic Center Park to hear him speak.

On August 17, 1962, Kennedy visited Pueblo to celebrate the Frying Pan Arkansas Reclamation Project, the huge and controversial water diversion project that brought water from the Western Slope to Colorado Springs and Pueblo (admittedly not such a popular project with people from the Western Slope or environmentalists). Pueblo closed schools and offices for the occasion. Over 100,000 people stood on the sides of Highway 50 to see the President’s motorcade pass on his way to Pueblo Public Schools Stadium. There, 18,000 people in a celebratory mood shrugged off the heat in order to hear Kennedy ordain the Reclamation Project, which he had just signed into law, to be a symbol of the power of the United States to bring water to some of “the bleakest land in the United States.” Kennedy also remarked on the necessity of such projects if the country were to provide water and living space for 300,000,000 people by the end of the Twentieth Century.

In his last visit to Colorado, on June 5, 1963, Kennedy was the commencement speaker at the Air Force Academy graduation in Colorado Springs. There, he spoke to 35,000 people, more than the combined total of attendees for the Academy’s first four graduations. Kennedy was made an honorary member of the class of 1963. He both joked with the graduates and gave these uplifting words:

“We believe in the ability of man to triumph over the terrible forces he has created. We believe in the eternal right to be free. And we believe, finally, that we are going to prevail.” (Rocky Mountain News, 11/23/1963, Page 16, “JFK’s Colorado Trips…”).

To find out more about John F. Kennedy and Stewart Udall and their legacies in Colorado and the West, visit our department and read our newspaper clipping files (where I got most of the information for this blog post). To search for books by and about Udall and Kennedy, search our catalog. To find out more about the above photograph, click here. And thanks Dad, for the blog topic idea.