Robley Evans was a fatherless schoolboy living in Washington, D.C., in 1859, running errands for Congressmen and dreaming of running away to sea. William Hooper, Utah’s delegate to Congress, took a liking to the 13-year-old and made him an extraordinary offer: Would Evans accept Utah’s nomination to the Naval Academy at Annapolis?
Four days later, the Virginia native was heading west to establish Utah residency. Evans rode a mule across the plains in the company of five California-bound strangers. He stayed with the Hooper family in Salt Lake, and in 1860, technically a Utahn, Evans became a naval cadet.
Fast forward to 1908: In a display of American might on two oceans, the “Great White Fleet,” composed of 16 battleships, steamed out of Hampton Roads, Virginia. Commanded by Rear Admiral Robley Evans, hero of two wars and the nation’s most experienced naval officer, the fleet cruised down the coasts of North and South America (the Panama Canal was six years from completion), through the Straits of Magellan, and up the west coasts of both continents.
Americans eagerly followed the ships’ progress. That spring, tens of thousands planned trips to watch the fleet arrive at California ports. “Fleet fever” reached Utah in April, when the leaders of Salt Lake High School’s cadets decided their 300 boys should greet the navy in San Francisco.
The cadets, organized in 1901 by Spanish-American War veterans, learned military discipline through marching drills and summer encampments, where uniformed boys carried borrowed National Guard rifles. In 1908, Salt Lake High (now West) had three squads; East High had one. Three Utahns at Annapolis and one at West Point were former cadets, as were leaders of the Utah National Guard. The cadets were considered citizen-soldiers in the best American tradition.
But when they decided to go to California, the fleet was already in sight of San Diego. The boys had only two weeks to raise more than $12,000. Utahns pitched in, with daily bulletins tallying donations. Organizations as diverse as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the anarchist pressman’s union contributed. The Tabernacle Choir gave a benefit performance. Greek fruit peddlers took up a collection. The high school drama club gave $100, abandoning plans to perform that year. The school erupted in cheers upon word that Ogden High had raised $150.
The cadets went to San Francisco, camping at the Presidio and, to all reports, impressing military and civilian viewers with their discipline in camp and their precision marching through city streets behind their own 40-piece band. The boys’ hopes of marching in a parade to honor the fleet were more than met: Evans sent word that he wanted Salt Lake’s cadets as his personal escort. The boys arrived early at their rendezvous and accompanied the admiral to the parade route at the precisely scheduled time, leaving San Francisco’s tardy civic leaders to catch up if they could.
Although the fleet would continue their round-the-world tour, San Francisco was Evans’ final port. Ill and on crutches, the last active-duty Civil War veteran retired there. The admiral’s flag was lowered for the last time in a solemn shipboard ceremony attended only by close associates and honored guests. To their surprise and great pleasure, the Salt Lake cadets were invited as witnesses.
Exhausted by adventure and exercise, the cadets slept most of the way home. Their 10-car chartered train stopped in Ogden long enough for the boys to march to the high school and salute the students who had helped pay their expenses.
Evans himself passed through Utah the next day. He praised the cadets and thanked Utah: “A Utah man was kind enough to give me my chance. I have always tried to act, to do my duty so that you would not be sorry.” Evans made a longer visit to Utah in 1909; he died in 1912, worn out in service to his country.