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Theodore Roosevelt National Park

North Dakota’s Badlands were good for the man who became president 100 years ago

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MEDORA, N.D. — East meets West in the Badlands of North Dakota.

Here, along the meandering Little Missouri River, the grassy prairie merges with hilly debris from the primordial Rocky Mountains, a rainbow-streaked region further cut and rumpled by the massive Ice Age glaciers that departed only a few thousand years ago.

Here a wealthy New York "dude" named Theodore Roosevelt came to hunt, to ranch and to escape personal tragedy. In the process, he evolved from a "four-eyed maverick" (as one biographer described him) into a hybrid Easterner-and-Westerner. He became a young man with a respect for cowboy hardiness and a growing understanding of the conservation ethic.

He also came away with a sense of himself and of America that he later acknowledged may well have helped him — 100 years ago this month — to become the 26th president of the United States.

And here, notes Bruce Kaye, the National Park Service's historic "cannonball and Revolutionary War sites" of the East give way to the monumental scenery of Western preserves like Yellowstone and Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.

For a long time, Theodore Roosevelt National Park was most often solely connected, as its name implies, to T.R. — a tribute to a much-admired president who lived in and loved the Badlands, says Kaye, the park's chief of interpretation. Roosevelt's first ranch cabin, the Maltese Cross, has been transplanted to the visitor center in Medora. His principal ranch site, the Elkhorn, is bracketed by the park's large North and South Units along the Little Missouri.

But today's visitors — scenic-drive tourists, landscape photographers, animal watchers and backcountry enthusiasts — also have come to treasure the park's other, perhaps more "Western" attributes: its vistas, geology, seasons, plant and wildlife communities (bison and prairie dogs, wild horses and longhorn steers) and long human history.

"We have evidence of people that goes back about 10,000 years," Kaye says.

A mere 118 years ago, Roosevelt, an avid hunter, arrived in the Badlands intent upon bagging an American buffalo — the bison. The great animal that once ruled the prairie by the millions was on the verge of being wiped out. It took him 10 days to succeed, so rare had the bison become in only a few decades of concentrated slaughter.

Cattle inherited the bison's range. Ranching was expanding quickly in the upper plains, and the combination of investment and lifestyle appealed immediately to Roosevelt. He became a partner in the small Maltese Cross Ranch, eight miles south of Medora, N.D., before returning home to New York, where he was already — at age 24 — a rising legislative star in the State Assembly and a budding writer.

Only months later, tragedy struck.

His mother, known as Mittie, and his beautiful young wife, Alice, died within hours of one another on the same day, Feb. 14, 1884 — St. Valentine's Day. Alice had given birth two days earlier to a little girl, who would carry on her name.

Roosevelt bulled through the subsequent months before finally escaping once again to the Dakotas, where he could work out his gloom and salve his broken heart — and become the hardy man he, a long-time asthmatic, longed to be.

One of his first objectives was to establish a second ranch. The Maltese Cross, he felt, was too close to a heavily traveled horse trail. People — perhaps an intolerable dozen a week! — tended to stop for a chat, disturbing his reading, thinking and general solitude.

"He wanted to live where the peace of nature was total," Kaye says.

So Roosevelt explored the Little Missouri valley, fording the river over and over, and found a spot he thought ideal, 35 miles north of Medora. Discovering the locked skulls of two elk bulls — which apparently died together in battle — he called his new ranch site Elkhorn.

His attraction to the Badlands showed in his enthusiasm for the hunt (rain or shine), for the work and for the indigenous drama around him. He herded reluctant "beefsteers" and battled bullies and badmen like a character in a dime novel, all experiences that gave him a rich store of anecdotes for conversation, books and articles.

"By Godfrey, but this is fun!" he was known to exclaim.

In a letter to his sister Anna (known as Bamie) in August 1884, he put into prose-poetry his feeling for the land around him.

"The grassy, scantily wooded bottoms through which the winding river flows are bounded by bare, jagged buttes," Roosevelt wrote. Their "fantastic shapes and sharp, steep edges throw the most curious shadows, under the cloudless, glaring sky; and at evening I love to sit out in front of the hut and see their hard, gray outlines gradually growing soft and purple as the flaming sunset by degrees softens and dies away. . . ."

A few years later Roosevelt wrote a series of articles for Century Magazine about ranch life in the West. One, titled "In the Cattle Country," includes an advisory that reads suspiciously as if from firsthand experience.

"Nothing can be more foolish than for an Easterner to think he can become a cowboy in a few months' time," he observed. "Many a young fellow comes out hot with enthusiasm for life on the plains, only to learn that his clumsiness is greater than he could have believed possible; that the cowboy business is like any other and has to be learned by serving a painful apprenticeship; and that this apprenticeship implies the endurance of rough fare, hard living, dirt, exposure of every kind, no little toil, and month after month of the dullest monotony."

That said, he recommended the life.

His relish for the hunt also, somewhat paradoxically, instilled in him values that would make Roosevelt one of the first great conservationists. Overgrazing and harsh seasons in the 1880s ravaged Badlands and prairie. Birds, small mammals and big-game animals alike suffered. Roosevelt recognized that more than the buffalo were en route to extinction.

In these years he established and directed the Little Missouri Stockmen's Association, to better husband the land. He helped found an organization to rescue the buffalo, as well as the first Boone & Crockett Club (honoring two of his heroes, Daniel and Davy) to promote big-game preservation and law enforcement.

His conservation crusade continued into the 20th century.

Roosevelt — a Rough Rider hero after the Spanish-American War — was elected vice president in 1900 on the Republican ticket with incumbent President William McKinley. Only months later, McKinley was mortally wounded by an assassin in Buffalo, N.Y.

Theodore Roosevelt succeeded to the presidency on Sept. 14, 1901. At 42, he remains the youngest to have ever assumed the office.

As president, and with congressional approval, Roosevelt established five national parks (including Mesa Verde and Crater Lake) and 52 wildlife refuges. He created the Forest Service. And he set aside 18 national monuments under the 1906 Antiquities Act.

The impact of the Dakota Badlands upon Roosevelt — and hence the nation — now seems without question.

"He had gone West sickly, foppish and racked with personal despair," Edmund Morris wrote in his 1979 biography, "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt." "During his time there he had built a massive body, repaired his soul, and learned to live on equal terms with men poorer and rougher than himself."

In fact, Roosevelt himself acknowledged, "If it had not been for my years in North Dakota, I never would have become president of the United States."

Shortly after Theodore Roosevelt's death in 1919, suggestions began being floated for memorials to the dynamic turn-of-the-century president, from state parks to a national monument or a national park.

One idea was to set aside a park in the Dakota Badlands where he had spent his ranching days — a huge tract that might be called the "Grand Canyon of the Little Missouri," echoing the world-famous names of chasms along the Yellowstone and Colorado rivers.

The National Park Service helped rehabilitate Roosevelt's Little Missouri Badlands with the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s — but administrators did not believe the area justified full park status, Kaye says. "There were ideas that this would become part of the state park system." But the state felt it was too vast for that.

A national park in flat, featureless, even "arctic" North Dakota? The concept seemed ludicrous to many people. Even a national monument was considered a stretch.

But one of the state's congressmen, Rep. William Lemke, refused to give up, and in 1947 a compromise was achieved: Portions of the Little Missouri Badlands would be set aside as Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park — encompassing basically today's South Unit and Elkhorn Ranch. The North Unit was added a year later. In 1978 the one-of-a-kind "memorial" nomenclature was dropped.

Still, the idea of a historic and scenic gem in western North Dakota seems to take modern travelers aback.

"We're constantly getting people here who say, 'This is my 50th state,' " Kaye says. "We're last on everybody's list. People get to Alaska and Hawaii before they get to North Dakota. And they're surprised at what's here."

Kaye tells the story of a Park Service regional director who was among the doubters — until he paid a visit. In 1990 he wrote to Theodore Roosevelt's superintendent, "There was a time . . . that I questioned its place among the national parks. However, there is no question in my mind now after this visit. . . ."

A few days later, the administrator wrote again, in almost Rooseveltian terms:

"Today was perfect . . . ," he said, "beautiful clouds, a gentle breeze and the sense that you were here almost by yourself. We approached River Bend Overlook" on a northern Grand Canyon-like sweep of the river. "There . . . the vista of the Little Missouri and the Badlands in the background, all set off by cumulus clouds — I said, 'If there was ever a perfect picture of what a National Park Scene should be — that is it for me!"

E-mail: rayb@desnews.com