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On the afternoon of August 20, 1910, a battering ram of wind moved through the drought-stricken national forests of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, whipping the hundreds of small blazes burning across the forest floor into a roaring inferno. Forest rangers had assembled nearly ten thousand men—college boys, day workers, immigrants from mining camps—to fight the fire. But no living person had seen anything like those flames, and neither the ...
On the afternoon of August 20, 1910, a battering ram of wind moved through the drought-stricken national forests of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, whipping the hundreds of small blazes burning across the forest floor into a roaring inferno. Forest rangers had assembled nearly ten thousand men—college boys, day workers, immigrants from mining camps—to fight the fire. But no living person had seen anything like those flames, and neither the rangers nor anyone else knew how to subdue them.
Egan narrates the struggles of the overmatched rangers against the implacable fire with unstoppable dramatic force. Equally dramatic is the larger story he tells of outsized president Teddy Roosevelt and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot. Pioneering the notion of conservation, Roosevelt and Pinchot did nothing less than create the idea of public land as our national treasure, owned by and preserved for every citizen.
"Essential for any Green bookshelf." -Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Historians will enjoy Egan’s well-written book, featuring sparkling and dynamic descriptions of the land and people, as a review of Roosevelt’s conservation ideas, while general readers will find his suspenseful account of the fires mesmerizing."—Library Journal
"Egan tells the story with great humanity . . . In prose so sizzling it crackles, The Big Burn keeps alive the conservation dreams of Teddy Roosevelt by allowing this story to rise from the ashes, once again."—Denver Post
"[Egan] has already proved himself to be a masterly collector of memorable stories. His new book, The Big Burn, continues in the same tradition . . . What makes The Big Burn particularly impressive is Egan’s skill as an equal-opportunity storyteller. By this I mean that he recounts the stories of men and women completely unknown to most of us with the same fervor he uses to report the stories of historic figures . . . Even as we mark the centennial of this great fire, wildfires in the West continue to burn. It makes this book which is a masterwork in every sense worthy of a very careful reading."—Christian Science Monitor
"[Egan] is at the top of his game . . . An important cautionary tale for these days that also reads like a classic adventure story."—Washington Times
"Egan is a gorgeous writer. His chapters on the 'blowup'... should become a classic account of an American Pompeii."—BookPage
"Muir called Pinchot 'someone who could relish, not run from a rainstorm'—a phrase that also describes The Big Burn's narrator. For as long as Egan keeps chasing storms, whether of dust, fire, rain or snow, you'd be smart to call shotgun."—Los Angeles Times
"Few writers have the Pulitzer Prize-winning Egan's gift for transforming history lessons into the stuff of riveting page-turners... Don't miss this one. Grade: A."—Entertainment Weekly
“A Peculiar Intimacy”
For two days snow had been falling in upstate New York, so it came as a surprise to Gifford Pinchot when he showed up at the executive mansion in Albany and found the second-story windows wide open and a barrel-chested man, the governor of New York, cajoling children down a rope to the ground. The cold air rushed in, the children slid out—a robust family brought to life inside a snow globe.
Teddy Roosevelt loved to play. On this winter day in February 1899, the governor imagined that the mansion was under attack by Indians and it was his job to help the kids escape through the window and down the rope. One by one, Roosevelt lowered the children onto the snow, whooping and hollering to highlight the drama. There went Teddy Jr., and Kermit, Edith, and Archie. (Quentin, not yet two, was too small to join them, and Alice, the eldest daughter, was away at school.) Pinchot was amused, though he seemed at first blush to be the kind of man who kept his distance from a good joke.
Gifford Pinchot was attractive in the old-school way, with a sizable enough family fortune to qualify as an English lord, and was still unmarried at age thirty-three. But at times he also brought to mind a character from Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow, with his elongated, skeletal frame, huge feet, stilts for legs, brushy mustache draped over his upper lip, comb-resistant hair, high forehead, and wild, faraway gaze. “His eyes do not look as if they read books,” said the writer Owen Wister, a Roosevelt intimate, “but as if they gazed upon a cause.” Pinchot could be kinetic, especially when unbound by an idea, his long arms fluttering in conversation. Or he could appear formal and upper class—stiff with the inherited burden of accent and manners that came from prep school at Exeter; college at Yale, including membership in the most secret of clubs, Skull and Bones; and summers in a family castle in Pennsylvania, with sixty-three turrets and twenty-three fireplaces, the chateau known as Grey Towers. On occasion, he slept on a wooden pillow; most mornings he was awakened by a valet who threw cold water in his face. A good man, a bit odd, as friends said behind his back. But Pinchot was self-aware enough to know that he was considered strange, and though he was in on the joke, it fed his insecurity.
“Made an ass out of myself,” he wrote in his diary after many a party.
Pinchot, who knew Roosevelt from sportsmen circles in the Empire State, came to the governor’s mansion with Christopher Grant La Farge, son of the painter John La Farge, a close friend of -Teddy’s. They were in Albany on business of sorts. Pinchot was the national forester, a meaningless federal job. He wanted to get a good look at a large tract of trees in the nearby Adirondacks—something he and La Farge thought might make a book subject. Roosevelt knew a thing or two about the written word: just forty years old, he was about to publish his fourteenth book.
Teddy invited the two men in for a hot drink and to stay the night. In the evening, they talked of forest protection and the fear of a coming timber famine caused by industrial-age logging. On this they agreed: Americans had become much too shortsighted with the continent they now straddled. In an eyeblink, the great bounty had been exhausted; more than a billion acres had been given away to corporations, states, or private landowners to do with as they pleased. There was deep concern in many circles that the nation might well run short of natural resources in the process of remaking the land. An America stitched together by railroads and telephone lines suddenly seemed not just finite but small. They also traded gossip about the political cesspool in Albany. Learning his craft in New York at a time when public office was bought and sold by machine bosses, Roosevelt had developed a remarkably hard view of politics. “On one side there were corrupt and unscrupulous demagogues,” he wrote of the New York State Assembly, “and on the other side corrupt and unscrupulous reactionaries.”
Teddy’s face lit up when Pinchot and La Farge told him about their real reason for traveling upstate in the midst of one of the coldest seasons on record: a winter ascent of Mount Marcy, at 5,344 feet the highest point in New York. Marcy in February was like upper Denali in Alaska: a haunt of killing cold with wind chills of thirty below zero and rocks coated in polished ice. The plan was to snowshoe to a cabin and spend the night, then start out for Lake Tear of the Clouds, the source of the Hudson River. The snow was twenty feet deep in parts, but in other places the wind had blown it down to hard ice. Roosevelt thought the plan was bully; he had some experience in mountaineering, and regularly inhaled risk as some men gulped vitamin supplements. Danger was stimulating to mind and body. Roosevelt had scrambled up Vesuvius in Italy and the Jungfrau in Switzerland. After climbing the Matterhorn, he shrugged off the feat in a letter to his sister: “A fairly hardy man, cautious but not cowardly, with good guides, has little to fear. Still, there is enough peril to make it exciting.”
It was the prospect of peril that first united Pinchot and Roosevelt. Both were adrenaline addicts and thrill seekers, the longer the odds, the better. Roosevelt’s idea of “great sport” was to go after a grizzly bear armed only with a knife, while Pinchot had once killed a fast-moving deer with a pistol. Teddy had sponsored Pinchot’s membership in the Boone and Crockett Club, a group devoted to hunting and fishing by educated men who never wanted to stop being boys. Pinchot could coax a fish from the deepest hole and outshoot anyone in his class. And now this talk of climbing Mount Marcy got the pulse of both men going. Instead of more tea, Roosevelt wondered, would Pinchot be ready for a physical challenge of some sort? Would Pinchot like to fight Roosevelt? How about wrestling, stripped to the skivvies, on the governor’s mat? Roosevelt had installed the big wrestling mat and tried to get the state to pay for it. When the comptroller questioned the bill, he explained that while most governors entertained with billiards, Teddy preferred to attack—for sport—his official visitors.
As governor of New York, pinned to the executive mansion by the daily intrigues of Tammany Hall legislators, Roosevelt had little time for extended expeditions. Boxing was his main outlet, though he liked to wrestle too. “Violent amusement,” Roosevelt called both sports. The problem was finding a regular sparring partner. For several weeks, a smalltime prizefighter served as one of his regular pugilistic opponents. Then he disappeared, and Roosevelt did not hear from the man until he received a letter from jail—as it turned out, his boxing mate was a fugitive, wanted for burglary.
Pinchot and Roosevelt agreed to a fight in two parts: a wrestling match, followed by a break, then a round of boxing. At Yale, Pinchot was a backup quarterback on the football team coached by Walter Camp; he was quick on his feet for a big man. He expressed some concern about his six-inch height advantage over T.R., who stood five feet eight inches. Nonsense, Roosevelt told him: he’d exchanged blows with men taller than Pinchot. Plus, Roosevelt had nearly thirty-five pounds on the cadaverous forester.
A sickly child, asthmatic, frail and nearsighted, Teddy had willed his way to strength, defying the doctors who said he might not live long unless he cultivated the indoor life. “I will make my body” was his vow, spoken in a voice yet to crack into young manhood. As a boy, he was afraid of horses, afraid of wild animals, afraid of what lurked behind a tree in the dark. But he taught himself to pretend that he was brave, and in this way became fearless. “By acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid,” he said. He not only could climb mountains but also could walk cross-country at a fifteen-minute-mile pace and ride a horse for half a day without a break. He loved to snowshoe in winter and canoe in summer. He swam outdoors in all seasons, in any temperature. He could rope, ride, and shoot like an action figure in a Remington painting, and yet he had a delicate side, with a poet’s appreciation for the wondrous symmetry of a flower or the hush of a still morning. “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mysteries, its melancholy and its charms,” he said. The outdoors may have shaped the body, but it clearly got into his soul.
Young Teddy had been a collector of insects and frogs, happiest when he fled the clutter of Manhattan for summers of scrubbed air in the country. When he enrolled at Harvard, a teenager of just 125 pounds, he intended to become a zoologist; his father, a wealthy businessman and philanthropist, cautioned him that as a man of science he would never make much money. Roosevelt wanted to be like John James Audubon, who had done for American bird life what Leonardo da Vinci did for the human form, or Dr. William Hornaday, who founded the National Zoo in Washington and tried to save a few American bison before the last ones disappeared. Audubon and Hornaday were Teddy’s heroes, unusual choices for a city boy.
During Teddy’s sophomore year, his father died of stomach cancer, at the age of forty-six; he said he lost “the best man I ever knew.” To sideline the sorrow, Roosevelt kept busy at all hours, studying the orderly web of the natural world and working his fists and feet in the gym. As a fighter, he made it once to the semifinals in his weight category, but realized he would never be an extraordinary athlete. As a student of science, he was dismayed that virtually all the work took place indoors, in the concentrated claustrophobia of the laboratory. He wanted to crash and thump and charge and breathe in all the dimensions beyond the walls. He gave up the zoology dream—though not his passion for insects, animals, and their habitats—to study politics and history, followed by law school. He wasn’t fit to be a lawyer either; he dropped out of Columbia without a law degree.
Delayed adolescence, full of earnest indecision and freeform travel, was not for Teddy Roosevelt. In little more than a year’s time, he married the stunning Alice Hathaway Lee—“so radiantly pure and good and beautiful that I almost feel like worshipping her”—and was elected to the New York Assembly, from Manhattan. At age twenty-three, he was the state’s youngest legislator; at twenty-five, he was Republican minority leader, though he showed little of a young man’s naiveté. He knew whom the party bosses owned and could always tell when they left their fingerprints on a bill. With his father’s inheritance, he could afford virtue, which was in short supply in Albany. Not all of his fellow assemblymen were one hundred percent crooked, Roosevelt said, but “there were a great many thoroughly corrupt men in the Legislature, perhaps a third of the whole number.”
The blow of a lifetime came early, on Valentine’s Day 1884, perhaps the best-known single day of trauma in the formative period of a future president. In the morning, Teddy’s mother died of typhoid fever at the family house on Fifty-seventh Street; she was forty-six. A few hours later, the suddenly orphaned Roosevelt lost his bride in the same house, to Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment, which had been masked by her pregnancy. He scrawled a big, shaky X on a diary page and wrote a single sentence: “The light has gone out of my life.” He never said or wrote his wife’s name again.
Roosevelt went west to the Badlands, west to a place far removed from Manhattan and Albany and friends from college and the family circle, west to a place where the markings on the map showed no major roads or cities of any size—only ranges and rivers, the West of anonymity, where he could be swallowed by the landscape. In the Dakotas, he would try to heal himself. When he arrived at the train depot on the Little Missouri and looked around at the vast brown emptiness, the prairie wind in his face, he felt born to this land.
In time, he built a small cabin of rough-hewn logs, with a sitting room in front of a big fireplace. There he put a rocking chair, hung buffalo robes and bear hides from animals he had killed, and spent the evenings with his books. He became another man, with cattle to run and horses to keep, with water to haul and fences to mend, a bespectacled cowboy from Harvard who punched a drunk in a bar who’d taunted him as “four-eyes,” chased an outlaw through the canyons, suffered frostbite on a winter outing. He was no faux ranch hand: Teddy rode long days in the saddle, once breaking a shoulder and ribs while taming wild horses. “I have three weeks on the roundup and have worked as hard as any of the cowboys,” he wrote in one letter. “Yesterday, I was 18 hours in the saddle, from 4 A.M., to 10 P.M.”
The West of unlimited promise was in its last days. The tribes had been rounded up and shuttled off to little remnants of their native land. The indigenous bison herd, sixty million or more strong at one time, was down to a few hundred stragglers. The ecosystem of the high plains, which had been compared to Eden by Lewis and Clark, was being torn to pieces. Where birds had once blotted the skies of migratory flyways, it was hard at times to find a single duck on a fall afternoon. But even with the smell of death on it, the land made Roosevelt whole again. He found renewal in wilderness—the geography of hope, as it was called by westerners who followed him.
Back in Manhattan after two years, Roosevelt resumed his political career. He ran for mayor of New York City in 1886, and lost, but considered the whole venture a lark—“anyway, I had a bully time!” A month after the election, he married Edith Kermit Carow, whom he’d known since he was a kid on East Twentieth Street; while very young, they had watched Lincoln’s funeral procession from an upstairs window of a house. In just over ten years, they had five children. During the same span, Roosevelt wrote nine books—histories of the West and New York, biographies, memoirs, war stories. In two years as the city’s police commissioner, he saw New York’s underside—ragged orphans working in overheated tenements, opium dens filled with frightened immigrants, illegal boxing matches in sweaty basements. The job both hardened him against crime and softened him about the woes of the underclass at a time of great wealth held by a few. The muckraking book by Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, was an enormous influence. “I was still ignorant of the extent to which big men of great wealth played a mischievous part in our industrial and social life,” Roosevelt said. Early on, he developed a disdain for the more gaudy members of the gilded class, the celebrity millionaires who took up column space in the penny papers and held parties where showy excess was the goal, a dinner with a Versailles theme being the peak of ostentation. The rich bored him.
Adventure called during the Spanish-American War. Again he became another man, someone who would charge into a hail of bullets because he had willed himself not to fear death. He despised politicians who talked of war and sent others off to fight. Colonel Roosevelt, with his sun-hardened troop of ranchers, broncobusters, drifters, and hunters—the Rough Riders, 1st Volunteer Cavalry Regiment—became the best-known man in America. The luster was enough to carry him into the governor’s office in 1898. Yet even with a decade of New York reform politics and a season at war under his belt, what had saved the broken young man was his time in the open land of the Dakotas. He never forgot.
“I owe more than I can ever express to the West,” Roosevelt said.
Stripped to gym shorts and tank tops, the governor and the forester faced each other. In a crouch, Gifford Pinchot was still taller than Roosevelt standing. Pinchot had a rangy athleticism, sinewy and hard, weighing barely 175 pounds. The two men circled each other, arms extended, hands at the ready, looking for advantage. They made thrusts and parries, grunting with every advance. Roosevelt liked to taunt an opponent, and it threw people off—that high, jabbing voice, a barking bulldog. He reached for Pinchot’s neck, trying to corral him. He grabbed his shoulders, trying to throw him. He planted his foot on the mat and moved to trip him. Because Roosevelt’s center of gravity was lower, it gave him an advantage for dropping a taller man. But Pinchot was not easy to bring down. The big man could squirm and dodge, and when dropped to the mat he could bounce to his feet with great speed. Roosevelt’s best weapon was his chest—it was huge for a man his size, armored in muscle. At last, he flipped Pinchot to the floor, using his upper body and weight advantage to hold him. Roosevelt got his count—and victory. Pinchot stood, red-faced and defeated.
The second fight was with fists only, and here Roosevelt also seemed to have the advantage because of his regular sparring. But Pinchot had a much longer wingspan; he could simply slow-box around Roosevelt, keeping his distance, using his superior height and arm length. He laced his gloves, mulling his strategy. Go for the quick knockdown with a hook to the face? Or circle and exhaust the older, smaller Roosevelt?
Pinchot was a man of many moods, many calculations. He could be gothic with his dreadful long-distance stares. He could certainly be mystical, making some cryptic reference to the spirit world and often disappearing for no reason. “You see more and learn more when no one else is there,” Pinchot said. He could be suddenly forceful and personable, enlivened by a cause. He could be impulsive and would not back down, even when facing certain defeat. And he was in perpetual motion.
“Action is what I craved,” he said.
Pinchot had much in common with Roosevelt. Both were born to wealth, but disdained the rich. “Gilded idlers are just plain fools,” Pinchot said. Both grew up in the cultured comfort of Manhattan and learned about the outdoors over long summers in the country. Both were educated at the nation’s premier colleges, but were bored by academic life. Both had lost a woman to early death, after falling deeply in love. Both were passionate about nature. Both were hyper-competitive. Both had a similar epiphany about their own country while wandering around Europe: the United States would never match the Old World for cathedrals and castles, but should glory in its endowment from the natural world. Both were reformists with acute self-righteous streaks. Both drank very little and were regular churchgoers. Both found the West restorative. Both men thought they could change the world, and would soon get a chance at it.
While Roosevelt came from Dutch Knickerbocker stock, Pinchot traced his lineage to Napoleonic France. His grandfather, a supporter of the emperor, fled to the United States after Napoleon was forced into his second exile. In America he became a timber baron of his own rank, establishing the family wealth by relieving entire sections of the New World of its tree cover. What Pinchot the forester played down for most of his life was how much his family had to do with deforesting. He seldom mentioned that the immigrant Pinchot became one of the wealthiest men in northeastern Pennsylvania by stripping trees in his adopted state. The founder of the American family line, Cyrille Constantine Désiré Pinchot was a speculator and a clear-cutter. Gifford’s grandfather mowed down big swaths of native hemlock, white pine, oak, and other species. His wealth grew as the young nation fed the furnaces and the spoils of the industrial revolution, in time becoming the richest landowner in his county. His son certified their baronial status when he built Grey Towers, the massive family castle overlooking the Delaware—not too far from, but out of sight of, the hills denuded by his father’s clear-cuts.
Gifford was raised in New York, Connecticut, and the bluestone manse in Pennsylvania, in even greater wealth than his father had known. His mother, Mary, his closest confidant—Mamee, he called her—came from a big merchant and real estate family, one of the richest in New York. The merger through marriage with James Pinchot, who had parlayed his inherited money into a fortune in the restless ferment of New York, ensured that the children would always have the finest things in life. The family collected art and friends from among the best-connected people. But their main project was Gifford. He was bound for greatness, they told him early—he must choose his life’s task with utmost care. Gifford learned his tennis and his table manners, his French and his music, what to wear and when to swear, but he never took to the smart set.
In Gifford Pinchot’s version of the family narrative, he was born to service in the tradition of noblesse oblige. Perhaps. His parents were more refined than the earlier generation—the moneymakers. They were interested in philanthropy and the outdoors, in religion and music, and seldom got their hands dirty. Still, on Pinchot’s side, wealth had come from the brute economics of felling trees fast. So Gifford’s life could be seen as a corrective for what his grandfather had done. Pinchot recalled how his father approached him just before the young man went off to Yale. “How would you like to be a forester?” It was a strange question, Pinchot wrote, because there was no such concept then in the United States—no profession, school, job title, not so much as an aspiration. “The fact that Forestry was new and strange and promised action probably had as much to do with it as my love for the woods,” he wrote.
Like Roosevelt, he wanted to roam on his own; he wanted to prove himself. After Yale, with no job prospects in a profession still unborn in the states, Pinchot went to France, where forestry was a fussy thing practiced by a mildewed gentry. He studied at l’École Nationale Forestière, a cluster of dark buildings in Nancy. The ascetic Pinchot noted that “the town was full of wicked students,” and the neighboring hardwood forests were just as alien—trees grown like a crop, with nary a twig on the ground, the peasants banned even from making a campfire, subservient to the lords of the grounds. Everything was orderly, not at all like home. “I feel like being in real woods again,” Pinchot wrote his parents from Europe. “I shall be glad to leave—all drink and no forestry is not my meat.” To his surprise, everyone in European forestry circles wanted to talk about the American West, the big wild of the Rocky Mountains and beyond, which Pinchot had not yet seen. What a tabula rasa! What a place to practice la foresterie! Open country, ripe for grand themes!
When Pinchot returned home in 1890, he was dismayed at how Americans viewed their public domain. What was hailed in Europe as a glorious swath of unspoiled creation was viewed in his native land as a plunderer’s buffet. “To waste timber was a virtue, not a crime,” he wrote. While others saw a young country in full flex, stapling railroads along every river byway, leveling and burning the woods to make way for progress, overturning the prairie grass for farms, Pinchot saw chaos, death, soiling the garden—“a gigantic and lamentable massacre.” The cut-and-run philosophy appalled him. Worse, most public land was being sold at a pittance or handed off to people (not unlike his grandfather) who could not see beyond a season of cashing out. Presidents and governors took every opportunity to give land away—to the railroads, to town-platting developers, to mining conglomerates and timber syndicates, the quicker the better. A fire sale in Eden.
“The American Colossus was fiercely intent on appropriating and exploiting the riches of the richest of all continents—grasping with both hands, reaping where he had not sown, wasting what he thought would last forever,” Pinchot wrote. “The exploiters were pushing further and further into the wilderness. The man who could get his hands on the biggest slice of natural resources was the best citizen. Wealth and virtue were supposed to trot in double -harness.”
Pinchot’s maternal grandfather urged him to give up this forestry nonsense and come manage part of the family empire. Old boy, you’ll be rich beyond your dreams! Instead, Pinchot went west to sleep on cold rock and wet ground, to eat dried food and whatever bony bird he could shoot from the sky or fish he could pull from a river—to get his first look at land he would champion for the rest of his life.
His trip took him by train to Arizona, to the San Francisco Mountains above Flagstaff, the snowy peaks that towered over Navajo country and the canyonlands of wonder. On to California, to the High Sierra, the Range of Light, granite summits fourteen thousand feet above sea level, and north among the sequoias and redwoods, the biggest trees in the world—it took ten men to embrace a single trunk. In the Yosemite Valley, he climbed above the falls, higher than any he’d ever seen, then clambered down the rock and jumped in and out of the torrent itself, more than a quarter mile of falling water. The moment was pure bliss: baptism in the land. He felt immensely happy, the gloom gone. What’s more, he felt that he belonged. In the Pacific Northwest, he hiked past trees with a diameter the size of his dining room table in Manhattan, waded through a sea of hyper-photosynthetic green in the nation’s temperate rain forest. All of it was glorious, inspirational, a great thrill, everything his forestry education had lacked. But as the train took him east, back to old money and New York and persistent questions of What next, young man? the self-doubt returned. What good was this epic of self-indulgent travel if he could not put his passion to some use? His life needed an animating force.
“Footless, useless, selfish, dumb, and generally of no use to anybody,” he wrote at the end of his first trip out west. “Rotten as usual,” he noted five days later, now in a deep funk. “This uselessness probably a result of so much gadding about & so many late hours after that very severe western trip. Anyway, am disgusted with myself most thoroughly.”
Back in New York city, Pinchot hung a shingle outside an office on Fourth Avenue and Twenty-second Street: consulting forester. He may have been the nation’s only forester. He had decided to create his own job. His reputation grew quickly, aided by his father’s contacts. In the closing days of the nineteenth century, when American cities decided to build a park they went to Frederick Law Olmsted or his two sons. And when the subject was trees, Gifford Pinchot was the expert. But Pinchot was not content to be a consulting caretaker. His free time was spent in the wild, where his dreams took flight.
It was on a hike in the Adirondacks in the fall of 1892 that Pinchot first met the most famous naturalist in America—John Muir, the wiry, engaging Scot with a Santa Claus beard and liquid blue eyes, full of spring. What Buffalo Bill meant for cowboy shows, John Muir was for serious lovers of the outdoors: a celebrity whose picture could evoke a man of action.
Muir was one of eight children, who moved as a boy with his family to Wisconsin. There, he worked a farm; the knuckle-scuffing task of turning hard midwestern ground gave Muir an affinity with beasts of burden, he said later, helping him empathize with all living things. His early life showed no mark of greatness or ambition. He studied botany at the University of Wisconsin for a time, then kicked around the country for the better part of a decade, from factories in the flatlands to swamps in Florida. At age thirty, suffering from malaria, he sought the sunshine of California. That same year, 1868, he first saw Yosemite—its three-thousand-foot-high granite flanks, its soft light, its symphony of waterfalls. He stayed in the area for the next six years, working odd jobs, mostly as a shepherd. He developed his views on the land by observing, taking copious notes on the active geology of his adopted state, and by submission. He could write in clear, often witty, usually passionate prose, and his byline soon became one of the nation’s best known. By marrying, in his forties, into a family of means northeast of San Francisco, he found himself with a Victorian home on a vineyard and orchard, and the financial comfort that allowed him to roam. And roam he did—kayaking waters choked with icebergs, walking uncharted ground in Alaska, summiting glacier-draped volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest, hiking in the Adirondacks and all over his beloved Sierra.
A few days after meeting Muir in upstate New York, young Pinchot sent the naturalist a gift: a large hunting knife. Muir had no use for it—he foraged, yes, on many of his trips in the wild, but never took so much as a fish hook—to Pinchot’s astonishment. Muir said all he needed was to “throw some tea and bread in an old sack and jump over the back fence.” He was Huck Finn with shoes and a notebook. A few months later, at a dinner party at Pinchot’s parents’ home in Gramercy Park, they found they were kindred souls. “I took to him at once,” Pinchot wrote. Muir became a friend and mentor, starting when Pinchot was twenty-seven, and Muir was nearly twice his age.
“You are choosing the right way into the woods,” Muir wrote him not long after the dinner party, where Pinchot had told him about his solo excursions outdoors. Others considered it strange for a man of Pinchot’s standing to take monastic trips to the wilderness. Not Muir. “Happy man,” he wrote his acolyte. “You will never regret a single day spent thus.” Muir liked this odd patrician in part because he was such an eager follower—at first. In Pinchot, he saw someone “who could relish, not run from a rainstorm,” as he wrote. Just like himself.
Of course, there was calculation and some cunning on both sides. Pinchot’s family wanted Gifford to connect with the influential Muir, a man whose company was sought by everyone from Ralph Waldo Emerson to New York Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt. Muir, who had just started the Sierra Club in 1892 as a voice for the California range, could always use the Pinchot money and perhaps this bright young forester to further the cause. Together with a few other men who were starting to talk of ways to protect the land, they formed a conservation caucus that could barely fill a Union Pacific caboose. Fellow travelers included Olmsted, who was one of the first to insist that it was America’s duty to put aside “great public grounds for the free enjoyment of people”; a German-American forester, Bernhard Fernow, who headed the government’s first division of forestry even though he had no land under his jurisdiction; and the Boston botanist Charles Sargent. Small as the group was, their ideas were contagious, and well placed.
On several trips in the West, Muir and Pinchot bonded under the open sky. They spent nights along the rim of the Grand Canyon, slogged up snow-coated peaks in the Northwest, tramped through the Bitterroots in Montana, sometimes moving at a clip of twenty miles a day. Pinchot’s eccentricities were becoming more pronounced, even to the quirky Muir, who liked to lash himself to a tree to better understand the feeling of wind in a forest. During a rainy trek to Crater Lake in Oregon, a hollowed-out caldera high in the Cascade Mountains, Muir noted, “All slept in tent except -Pinchot.”
Pinchot and Muir did more than share hiking trips, of course. In 1896, they toured the West as part of the National Forest Commission, trying to help President Grover Cleveland decide what to do with big parts of Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, California, Wyoming, and Arizona Territory. Muir was an observer, Pinchot a leading voice of the commission, having already established himself as a pioneer voice for public forestry. They crossed the Bitterroot Mountains and thrashed through the deepest woods of Idaho, in the Clearwater River country, perhaps the wildest part of the contiguous United States—certainly the most inaccessible. In Oregon they toured the narrow green walls carved by the raging Rogue River and visited a nearby valley, the Umpqua, thick with salmon, steelhead, and coastal elk. Along the way, they spoke with hunters, homesteaders, and assorted wanderers. They ran into railroad men plotting new routes through the wild and speculators scouting for timber. Pinchot broke off and went by himself for a time, as usual most comfortable when alone. Curious. Where did he go at night? Later, Pinchot rejoined the commission when they got to the Grand Canyon.
Muir and Pinchot were supposed to spend the evening at a hotel with other commission members, but they peeled away, pitching camp at the rim of the rainbow-colored gap in the earth—“the greatest sight this world has to offer,” as Pinchot called it. That night, he felt “awestruck and silent.” Not so with the gabby Muir, who often conversed with flowers. He talked until midnight without interruption, his blue eyes reflecting the fire’s glare, telling stories and filling Pinchot with his wilderness philosophy. More than anything he tried to get Pinchot to let down his guard, to put aside his formal training for a moment, to allow nature to get inside him. “We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men,” Muir had said. Before dozing off, Pinchot caught a tarantula. Muir would not let him kill it. “He said it had as much right to be there as we did.”
After returning to the East, the forest commission recommended that two national parks be created, Mount Rainier and Grand Canyon, and told President Cleveland he should establish a number of forest reserves for other lands they had seen. Muir had envisioned such protection for years, but the idea was heretical to Congress and the biggest landowners of the day, the natural resource syndicates. The disposal of public land was a one-way proposition—to commerce, to settlement, to profit, with only a few exceptions. After much publicity about the beauty of Yosemite Valley from people such as Olmsted and the landscape painter Albert Bierstadt, President Abraham Lincoln had signed a bill in 1864 giving a tiny portion of the valley to the state of California—the early stirrings of the national park idea, though no such words were used.
But grazing and all manner of commercial use continued. In a similar vein, Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, was established in 1872 as a playground and tourist destination to help the railroads. Throughout the rest of the public domain, the railroads had already been given more than one hundred million acres; logging was unrestricted, the trees taken for free. And anyone could establish a mining claim on land not yet staked by another. The suggestions that Pinchot and Muir brought home in 1896 appeared to be dead on arrival. But Grover Cleveland, a Democrat and the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms, had a mischievous side and just a few months left in his last tour of the White House. The president had been granted the power to set aside certain forests, in a sort of limbo status, by a single clause in an act of 1891—something that Congress apparently thought was inconsequential. Cleveland used that power on February 22, 1897, Washington’s birthday. Nobody in the capital saw it coming. Ten days before leaving office, Cleveland established twenty-one million acres of forest reserves, among them the Olympic and Rainier in Washington, the Flathead and Lewis and Clark in Montana, the Bitterroot and Priest in Idaho. The biggest of them all straddled Idaho and Montana, more than four million acres in the northern Rockies. Congress moved promptly to make sure the reserves were stillborn, passing a bill to nullify protection for any public land. But on his way out the door, Cleveland vetoed the bill. Pinchot was delighted to be in on the brawl.
“It put forestry on the front page all over America,” Pinchot exulted. His chosen profession was obscure no more.
The new Republican president, William McKinley, inherited the reserves and the controversy. He immediately suspended Cleveland’s order. The woods became the domain of the General Land Office in the Interior Department, a backwater of patronage hacks, industry shills, and timekeepers. There were no forest rangers, no agents to patrol the land, no professionals. Logging, homesteading, mining, and property jumping continued as if nothing had happened. McKinley turned to Pinchot for guidance, asking him to tour these orphan forests one more time to help him decide what to do. Pinchot was appointed “confidential forest agent,” a spy with a green eye. The job paid ten dollars a day plus expenses. His charge was to get another look, take plenty of notes, and for God’s sake keep quiet and don’t stir up any trouble—no reason to rouse the land barons or their supporters in Congress.
By now Pinchot knew who owned the West—the “feudal overlordship” of the woods by a many-tentacled timber trust, the two railroad monoliths that controlled all rail transport in the upper half of the continent, and Homestake Mine in the Dakotas and other northern states. The law in these colonies was company law. But, just given the chance to breathe nothing but outdoor air for a couple of months, Pinchot jumped at the opportunity: up at 3:30 many mornings, hikes with mountain men and guides who added to his fishing expertise. He’d found his calling. He took a steamboat up Lake Chelan in Washington, which looks like Lake Como in Italy—“a beautiful trip up this most lovely lake”—and crossed into the North Cascades near the Canadian border, the American alps. At Priest Lake in Idaho, Pinchot awoke one morning to take in the dawn. Suddenly, gunfire rang out; a bullet just missed him, fired from across the lake. Pinchot rowed furiously across the water and went face-to-face with the errant shooter. In Idaho, he also saw up close what fire could do to a forest. Entire mountainsides were left scorched and skeletal by earlier burns around Priest Lake. It spooked him, sickened him, and stayed with him, as if he had seen a dead body for the first time.
“Of all the foes which attack the woodlands of North America, no other is so terrible as fire,” he wrote in a little primer outlining his views of forestry at the time.
Back in Washington, Pinchot’s report was buried. But McKinley was impressed by the young man’s energy, and found his family connections useful. He named Pinchot his forester, head of a tiny division with no power. Cleveland’s reserves would stand for now, but with no manpower to protect them. They were reserves in name only. Well, it’s a start, Pinchot told friends. He was given a back office in a brick building with a staff of ten. He had no land to manage, no oversight, no authority. On many days, it was humiliating: the big timber owners “held us in amused toleration or open contempt,” he wrote.
He was invited to speak at garden clubs and universities, a harmless gadfly with some compelling ideas, and thank you very much, Giff. So by the time thirty-three-year-old Gifford Pinchot laced up his boxing gloves to face Teddy Roosevelt in the governor’s mansion in 1899, he was a forester without a forest.
As a boxer, Roosevelt was predictable. Not for him would there be lightning-quick footwork and bouncing on his toes. He was a windmill of fists, with occasional uppercuts. The strategy was simple: throw it all at the opponent at once, overwhelming him. “I believe in going hard at everything” was his stated philosophy of life. Pinchot the boxer was classically trained, as with most things in his upbringing. He played it safe, using his height, keeping his distance from the flailing pug of a governor. Teddy landed a couple of glancing blows, nothing serious. Pinchot took his time to size up his man, taking in his moves. When his opening came, he hit Roosevelt hard several times. The governor was stunned, head snapping back. He staggered, swooned, tried to recover. A roundhouse round followed from Pinchot. Snap! Snap! Boom! Dazed, Roosevelt fell to the floor. Match to Pinchot.
Raised to be modest, keeping his thoughts to himself unless asked, the American model of Edwardian class, Pinchot still allowed himself to gloat—in private, of course. Before the year’s end, Pinchot was back at the governor’s mansion for a rematch—“boxed and wrestled with T.R. before dinner,” he wrote, as if recording the day’s weather. He and Roosevelt would maintain a brotherly, often tortured relationship for the rest of their lives, the needy and mysterious Pinchot, the ever-confident Bull Moose. It was unequal, as good friendships should not be, master and slave. They climbed rocks, swam icy channels, played tetherball on the roof of Pinchot’s house and tennis on the White House grounds, rode horses at full gallop over dirt trails. But Pinchot never forgot his triumph in the governor’s mansion. “I had the honor of knocking the future President of the United States off his very solid pins,” he wrote.
Nineteen months later, an anarchist shot President McKinley at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, on September 6, 1901. Roosevelt was summoned from the Adirondacks, where he was on a hiking trip not far from where Pinchot had gone for his winter climb. He rushed to Buffalo to be at the side of the bleeding president. T.R. had served a single two-year term as governor, and then ran as the number two man on the Republican presidential ticket in 1900. The party bosses in Albany felt the Siberia of the vice president’s office was a way to get rid of Roosevelt.
For a time, it looked as if the badly wounded McKinley would recover; Roosevelt was told he could rejoin his family back in the woods. He had just started to descend Mount Tahawus when a guide approached him in the fading light with an urgent telegram: McKinley had taken a turn for the worse. Roosevelt raced downhill, reaching his base cabin in the dark. After changing horses three times in a charge over primitive mountain roads, Roosevelt made it to a train station by dawn. There, he heard the news: McKinley was dead. That afternoon, eight days after the gunman fired at McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt took the oath in Buffalo; at forty-two, he was the youngest president, and the only native New Yorker to hold the highest office.
“It is a dreadful thing to come into the presidency this way,” Roosevelt told a friend, “but it would be a far worse thing to be morbid about it.”
Though he said publicly that little would change, in private Roosevelt wanted to steer the Republican Party away from big business and toward becoming “a fairly radical progressive party,” as he wrote in his memoir. To do that, he would need Gifford Pinchot. A week before Roosevelt moved into the White House, he huddled with Pinchot, telling him to stay on as forester—and as a presidential adviser. Pinchot could be his voice on many things. He could write his speeches, help him with hostile senators. And in turn Roosevelt would try to get Pinchot oversight of the reserves, some real land, and a corps of foresters to protect it. Roosevelt urged him to be expansive, idealistic, not some spectral bureaucrat in a back office. The world was open to them. Everything they had talked about in the past—keeping the public domain out of the hands of the trusts, a model for the world—was within their reach and their power. Think of it: he could be a forester with a forest—the chief forester at that, in charge of the world’s largest public forest. It was vaporous talk in 1901, but enough to win Pinchot, just thirty-six years old.
“We dream the same dreams,” Roosevelt later wrote to Pinchot; more than that, he added, they shared “a peculiar intimacy.”
Prologue: A Fire at the End of the World 1
IN ON THE CREATION
1. “A Peculiar Intimacy” 17
2. Roost of the Robber Barons 39
3. The Great Crusade 53
4. Deadwood Days 73
5. Showdown 86
WHAT THEY LOST
6. Summer of Smoke 105
7. Men, Men, Men! 116
8. Spaghetti Westerners 129
9. Firestorm’s Eve 141
10. Blowup 154
11. The Lost Day 158
12. The Lost Night 172
13. Towns Afire 187
14. To Save a Town 201
15. The Missing 211
16. The Living and the Dead 227
WHAT THEY SAVED
17. Fallout 239
18. One for the Boys 249
19. Ashes 263
Notes on Sources 287
Posted May 7, 2010
I would never have thought a book on the beginnings of American conservation and the Forest Service would be my favorite book of the year, but it is. Egan not only has well researched the devastating fires of 1910 in Idaho and Montana, but brilliantly brought to life both those who fought the fire and those who fought for policies that would conserve the forests of America. That these conflicts between businesses who want to exploit natural resources and average citizens who cherish them continue to this day is all the more reason why this story of a long ago fire resonates one hundred years later. Egan deftly weaves the story of the calamity of the fire with the personal stories of those who were outmaned and lacked federal support. Highly recommended.
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Posted September 4, 2013
Great read! I enjoyed the mini-biographies of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. Now I want to read more about them. The story of the beginning of the conservation movement was interesting too. His depiction of the huge fire was a real gripping story with wonderful, memorable stories. Just saw a photo of fire fighters at Yosemite and their "Pulaski" tools and knew all about how that was named. Highly recommend this for anyone who likes history and the outdoors.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 23, 2013
This was a read for my book club, not something I would have picked out on my own, but I liked it. I've always been interested in history, and now living in Washington State it had local appeal.
It was interesting to see that people haven't changed much, people are still fighting things that would be good for the country as they fought conservation then.
Posted April 5, 2013
So glad I read this book. You will learn about Teddy Roosevelt and how he started the Forest Service, politics has and always will be about the might dollar, and what brave men were a part of the early Forest Service. Sometimes I think the average Joe should run this country.
Posted March 5, 2013
Timothy Egan does it again. A period of history that is little known, but important is brought to vivid life. I couldn't stop reading this book because of the human stories Mr Egan uses to tell his story, and the fascinating tale of our fledgling Fire Service and National Parks. A fascinating read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 6, 2013
Brings real people back to life by telling their fascinating story surviving the huge fire across the northwest in the early 1900s. Also describes the beginnings of the US Forest Service - sometimes making it through outrageous politics.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 10, 2012
I guess this would classify as an historical novel - with the emphasis on historical accuracy. Loved it - as a retired Parks guy and firefighter. TR and Pinchot saved our National Forests from idiot politicians.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 19, 2012
A fascinating account of two battles fought in the early 1900s - the political battle fought by Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot to establish the U.S. Forest Service against strong opposition from timber, mining and railroad interests, and the on-the-ground battles fought by the young, underpaid, undersupplied rangers to try to save the forests in the devastatingly dry summer of 1910. The author brings the characters to life, providing glimpses into their personal lives as he weaves each character into the story. In the political story, parallels can be drawn to battles still being fought today. In the personal stories, the accounts of heroism in the face of overwhelming odds are timeless. A great read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 26, 2012
Posted June 12, 2012
This book is highly reccommended. It tells the story of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot's start of the National Forest Service, our national parks and reserves and the terrible fire that destroyed the bitterroot forests and beyond before rain finally came after a long drought. It tells of the horrific fight they had on their hands from big money and politicians to save the many lands we now cherish. If not for these dedicated conservationists we wouldn't have what we have now.
Posted June 5, 2012
I am astonished by Timothy Egan's ability to research and present such epic events as the deadly forest fire of 1910 and the birth of conservation in such an exciting and absorbing narrative style. Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and John Muir, are fascinating and fallible. I never imagined how their personalities intertwined and conflicted with their hopes for our national forests, or how they struggled to give birth to and battle for their precious child Conservation in spite of mean-spirited, greedy political leaders.
Growing up in the West myself, and twice mesmerized by the sight of the Sierra Mountains ablaze behind my home, the discussion of wildfire out-of-control is not a distant topic. I watched firefighters walk into these life and death struggles with awe and disbelief. The Big Burn is a heroic record of lives, men and women, that mattered during the terrible fire on August 20, 1910. Egan tells us the very personal story of how the leaders of our country created policy that led these foresters into this firestorm of overwhelming horror with no means to fight it, protect the towns in its path, or save the people in its way.
From the wealthiest idealists of that time to the immigrants working for no pay, Egan painstakingly gives us the details of their lives, the richness of their desires, and the bitterness of their decisions, which led many to their deaths. And yet, there are so many deserving heroes, too, which thankfully Egan offers for our consideration, like Gifford Pinchot and Pulaski. In the end, the readers will thank Egan for bringing these great men to life and light, and helping them understand the controversy between conservationists and those who might use our forests for personal gain.
An impressive story from an excellent writer.
Posted December 10, 2011
Timothy Egan went to great expense with his character development, and it paid huge dividends as the book reaches it's zenith. While not written, I believe, with any political implications, it is as thought provoking now as it we be in the future.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 15, 2011
A true story that reads like a thriller. You will not want to put it down. If you ever wondered how the Forest Service started; if you are fascinated by people of courage; if the old west and survival in the west intrigue you, read this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
I can only echo the other reviews. The history, the politics and the spirit of the people of the times, powerful and not, are documented in an engaging and informative way. Only in the history can we come to see how much, and in some cases, how little, has changed.
If your interest is in the history of wildfires in the U.S., then it is also worth following up on Egan's mention of the Peshtigo fire of 1871, the deadliest wildfire in U.S. history. I've recommended a book on that below.
Posted February 6, 2010
The Big Burn was an exciting trip through the lives and events associated with the creation of our Forest Sevice and our system of National and State Parks. You will hear names that once you might have only associated with a big brown sign in the middle of the wilderness, but the next time you are there a story will come to mind that will draw a smile to your lips, a tear to your eye, or maybe even a scowl.
It was a wonderful read.
I came upon this book as I roamed the bookstore, and its unusual cover with the burned cut-out was what first captured my eye.It is subtitled, "The Fire that Saved America," and this story ignites a fire of indignation at the wanton destruction of our country's forests. Not only is this an incredible story, but the history of this largest-ever forest fire in America made me feel almost short of breath as I raced along to follow this American tragedy.
Set in the early 1900's, the story brings to life the political and economic events of an era when 'Conservation' was not a household word. The impact of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, Roosevelt's chief forester, on the future of America's National Park System, is told dramatically. There is much human drama in the tales of the men who made up G.P.'s boys, the first group of Forest Rangers. You also meet John Muir, an American icon.
The three pages of Chapter 10, "Blowup," are sheer poetry from the first word until the last. I had heard my Mother use the term "Lalo Palouser" to describe a strong wind, but I really didn't know what it meant, and I never thought to ask her. To envision firebrands being tossed more than 10 miles while the wildfires raced more than 80 miles per hour with temperatures reaching more than 1,000 degrees is more than my imagination can fathom. This is an amazing description of true terror.
I do not know as much about the northwestern part of our country as I would like, and this gives me a invigorating look at its history. You may have bought the recently published National Parks: America's Best Idea, the book and DVD series about our national parks, narrated by Ken Burns. If so, you will be enthralled with the history of this book as it relates.
Timothy Egan brings to life an incredible amount of research into the lives and personalities of the principal characters, Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, as well as their roles in the formation of what was to become the U. S. Forest Service. The "Big Burn" of 1910, consuming more than three million acres in the forests of Idaho and Montana, provides the canvas upon which Egan paints the drama of conflicting interests of conservationists, logging companies, developers and railroads, enhanced with details acquainting the reader with numerous individuals and their roles in fighting this, the nation's largest forest fire.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 30, 2009
If you liked The Worst Hard Time, You will simply relish in this work. The writing is excellent and Egan does a great job of developing the characters involved in the story and describing the importance of the fire. This book, at times, also reads like a mystery. And there will be times where you simply find yourself traveling and camping with TR, Pinchot, and Muir. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND this work for anyone. You will not be able to put it down. Great Story. Great Author. Great History.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Egan details the history of the beginnings of the US Forest Service and the battle to control one of the largest forest fires in US history. The book tells of the callousness of the rich stockholders/landowners who believed the land was there for their exploitation, and it relates the heroism of the newly minted forest rangers who were forced to dig into their own pockets to keep Teddy Roosevelt's dream of conservation alive. The social history of the Idaho wilderness is fascinating. I highly recommend this very entertaining and enlightening book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.