By Ken Zurski
When the Peoria Park District was formed in 1893, the newly commissioned Parks Board set out to buy land and create public spaces that were not only scenic but easily accessible. The high bluff along the river on the north side of town was an ideal setting. But it was brutally steep and quite dangerous to traverse. The trolley car could access it from the top, but from the bottom, along the riverbank, the bluff was nearly impossible to reach. A path was needed so people could enjoy both the vista and the shore.
Plans were made, but it went slowly. By the time it was ready to build, nine years later, there were far more vehicles on the road. The winding path would have to be wide enough for automobiles too. Even its name was based on people using a “motor” rather than “foot” power to transport them up the side of the hill.
It was decided it would be called a “drive,” not a walkway. Even the name, chosen after a community contest was fitting: Grand View Drive.
Nearly a decade after opening, in October of 1910, Grand View Drive was about to be christened forever by a popular former president.
Theodore Roosevelt loved everything about the outdoors, so it was no surprise that he was quite pleased when, during a visit to Peoria, he was offered a chance to see the city in an open car. Roosevelt had just returned from a nearly yearlong trip to Europe and Africa where, in between big game hunts, he stewed over reports that his handpicked successor for president, William Howard Taft, was wrecking reform policies Roosevelt had fought so dearly to initiate and protect.
While still deep in the African jungle, Roosevelt received a letter that his friend, Gifford Pinchot, the longtime Secretary of Forestry had been fired by Taft for speaking out against a corporate land grab in Alaska orchestrated by the Taft Administration. That was enough for Roosevelt. He returned home and set out to embarrass Taft, fight for progressive ideals, support reform candidates in the midterm elections, and, unbeknownst to him at the time, spearhead a movement supporting another run for the presidency.
In the fall of 1910, he began a speaking tour in the Midwest which included rallies in bigger cities like St Louis and Indianapolis. In between stops, Roosevelt was asked by his friend Bishop John Spalding to come to Peoria. Fortunately for Peorians, politics wasn’t the only thing on the former president’s agenda that day.
Upon arriving in Peoria by train on October 12, a Wednesday, Roosevelt was given a hero’s parade down Adams Street. School children lined the streets waving American flags. Teddy regaled them with a wave and smile from his perch on a Peoria made Glide automobile.
After leaving the crowds behind, the procession turned onto Grand View Drive for the trip up the hill where a luncheon was planned at the Peoria Country Club. According to the Peoria Journal-Transcript, at some point, Roosevelt told the driver to stop. Roosevelt stood up and said: “Great, that’s fine.” He then turned to his car mates and told them that the view reminded him of his home along the banks of Oyster Bay (on the north shore of New York’s Long Island). According to the Journal-Transcript, that is all he said before taking his seat again and motioning the driver to continue.
The rest of Roosevelt’s visit to Peoria was typical over the top political fare. “Take down the jackpotters,” Roosevelt shouted to a packed hall during a talk that evening. “Jackpotters,” in his words, referred to those who dishonorably profited off their political position and power. “Take down the jackpotters,” he kept repeating to wild applause. The crowd was clearly on his side.
Later, after Roosevelt was gone, a quote emerged attributed to the ex-president that seemed to validate the city’s desirability. “I have traveled all over the world,” he reportedly said, “and this is the world’s most beautiful drive.”
He was referring to Grand View Drive.
Whether he said those exact words is not entirely known, but he certainly enjoyed the view. Plus, he was riding in a vehicle and on a paved and wide road that went up the side of a hill. All of this impressed him. “Great. That’s fine” he said.
In addition, it was October, a peak month for fall colors. So if he did at some point add “this is the world’s most beautiful drive,” who could argue?
Today, the saying is a part of the city’s lore. In fact, the four words “World’s Most Beautiful Drive” are often capitalized thanks to Peoria’s oldest radio station. As the legend goes, the station managers picked their call letters WMBD as an acronym of Roosevelt’s words. It’s a great story, but disputed. Most likely, the letters were just a random pick and the acronym connection came later. Regardless, many people still ask: Do you know what WMBD stands for?
“Sure, perhaps some of that hyperbole was intended to curry favor with the local population,” reporter Nick Vlahos wrote in 2018 in the Peoria Journal Star. “But then as now, apparently, Peorians certainly weren’t immune to flattery when it comes to the virtues of their hometown.”
“If one of the men on Mount Rushmore thought Grandview Drive was above average,” Vlahos adds, “that’s worth noting every day.”
It’s especially noted in Peoria every October when cars line up along Grand View Drive to experience the “World’s Most Beautiful Drive.”
(Some of the text was reprinted from Peoria Stories: Tales from the Illinois Heartland “A Motor Bug’s Delight” by Ken Zurski https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1937484238/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i1 )
(Sources: Nick Vlahos Peoria Journal Star October 12, 2018 https://www.pjstar.com/news/20181012/nick-in-am-tr-christens-worlds-most-beautiful-drive-108-years-ago-today).