President John F. Kennedy visited Duluth three times, both before and while he was President. All three visits were in the autumn.
September 26, 1959
Kennedy first came to Duluth on September 26, 1959, for a visit of just one day. He was then a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, serving in his second term. On this trip he was accompanied by Mrs. Kennedy. The main purpose of the Duluth trip was to visit Superior prior to the Wisconsin presidential primary. Kennedy hadn’t yet
declared himself a candidate for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, and he was traveling the country trying to gauge the support he might have should he decide to run.
The Duluth/Superior visit was the last stop on a three-day tour of Wisconsin. He arrived at the Duluth International Airport at 3:45 p.m. on September 26, where he was greeted by about 100 supporters. He took part in a press conference and a television interview in Duluth, and then toured the harbor on his way to Superior. That evening in Superior he spoke at Superior Central High School, focusing on the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which he said he had supported when he was in the House of Representatives.
October 2, 1960
Kennedy’s second visit to Duluth was even shorter than the first. It was on October 2, 1960. He was then the Democratic candidate for President, and the election on November 8 was just over five weeks away.
Kennedy flew into Duluth that day on his private plane, a Convair 240 nicknamed “Caroline” after his daughter. According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space
Museum, it was “the first private aircraft ever used by a candidate in a presidential campaign.” The plane landed shortly after noon, and Kennedy was scheduled to speak at UMD at 2:00 p.m. At the airport, some of the estimated crowd of 3,500 people broke through a police cordon and upset organizers’ plans for introductions and speeches. Lt. Peter Kurtovich, the St. Louis County deputy sheriff in charge of security, said his force included only four deputies and 16 members of the Sheriff’s Rescue Squad. Kurtovich said they should have had 100 people to control the crowd.
The motorcade to UMD was late getting started. They were a little late to arrive at UMD, where a crowd of about 7,500 awaited his speech in the Physical Education Building. Another mix-up occurred there when the new public-address system didn’t work and the politicians had to speak without amplification. According to the Duluth News Tribune, Humphrey joked that, “I never thought I would live to see the day when anyone would say ‘I can’t hear you.’ ”
In his speech, Kennedy compared his proposed programs to Vice President Nixon’s. He said he would select a secretary of agriculture sympathetic to Midwest farmers; he pledged if elected to sign a bill to aid the nation’s depressed areas, while he said Nixon had worked to kill such bills; and he promised that under his administration the country would become economically and militarily strong enough to ward off the Communist threat.
After the speech, Kennedy quickly returned to the airport where he was to fly to Hibbing for another speech. He was scheduled to arrive there at 3:20 p.m. An estimated crowd of 12,000, the largest crowd for a political rally in the history of the Iron Range, according to the Duluth Herald, heard him speak. Then he flew on to Minneapolis.
September 24-25, 1963
JFK arrived for his third and final visit to Duluth on September 24, 1963, just over eight weeks before he was assassinated in Dallas. It was his only visit to the Zenith City as President. The Duluth visit was part of a five-day, 11-state trip billed as the “conservation tour.” Kennedy went on from Duluth to visit many western states and national parks, stressing the importance of protecting lands and the environment.
The conservation tour began on the morning of September 24 in Milford, PA, where Kennedy dedicated the new Pinchot Institute for Conservation Studies. From there he flew to Duluth, arriving on a drizzly day at the Duluth International Airport at about 3:00 p.m. He was greeted by a crowd of about 1,500, and he took time to shake many hands. Then he boarded a helicopter for a trip to Ashland, WI, where he spoke to a crowd estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000 at the Ashland-Bayfield County Airport. He returned to the Duluth airport at about 5:00 p.m.
The largest number of people viewing the President in Duluth lined the motorcade route
from the airport to Hotel Duluth, where Kennedy and his party would spend the night. They traveled south on Central Entrance, down Mesaba Avenue to Fourth Avenue West, down to Superior Street and east to Third Avenue East. Members of the White House Press Corps who were in the motorcade estimated the crowd lining the streets at 50,000. Many were standing along the street in Duluth Heights, but the bulk of the crowd stood on Fourth Avenue West and then lined the length of Superior Street, where in places they were five people deep.
Kennedy arrived at the hotel, shook more hands, and then was taken to his suite of rooms on the 14th floor. He would appear to the crowd again at 7:00 p.m. on his way to the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he would address members of the Conference of Land and People of the Northern Great Lakes Region, a group that was meeting in Duluth at the time. In addition, members of the public were allowed in if there was room. The President entered the UMD Physical Education Building right on time at 7:30 p.m. The crowd of about 5,000 gave him a standing ovation. After being introduced by Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, Kennedy spoke for about 25 minutes. He focused on economic and environmental issues of the Northeastern Minnesota region, and stressed seven federal programs that he said could offer help to the area. The Duluth News Tribune printed his prepared text of his speech the next day, but his actual remarks differed greatly from that text.*
After leaving UMD, Kennedy returned to the hotel, where he shook more hands in the lobby, although the crowd was significantly smaller than before. The next morning, September 25, the motorcade left downtown Duluth and returned to the airport. A crowd of about 1,000 greeted him there, and he shook more hands. His plane left Duluth at 9:00 a.m., headed for Grand Forks, ND, and a speech at the University of North Dakota.
*The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum provides an audio of the actual Duluth speech. It can be accessed at: https://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/JFKWHA-221-001.aspx