Historical Fiction in the Adirondacks

By Mark Alpert

Question: Which U.S. president was the most prolific writer?

Answer: Teddy Roosevelt.

Surprised? According to Author in Chief by Craig Fehrman, TR wrote 37 works of biography, history, and public policy, the most notable of which was his first book, The Naval War of 1812, which was published when Roosevelt was only 24. In the popular imagination, TR is remembered as a great adventurer, but he was also an inexhaustible writer.

My wife and I have a soft spot for Teddy. About 15 years ago we joined the Theodore Roosevelt Association. We visited his childhood home, a townhouse on East 20th Street in Manhattan. (The building is actually a reconstruction of the original home, which was demolished in 1916, but it’s decorated with many of the original furnishings.) We also toured Sagamore Hill, the beautiful Long Island mansion that was Roosevelt’s home for most of his adult life and served as the Summer White House when he was president. And we trekked across the North Dakota Badlands to see the site of the cattle ranch on the Little Missouri where Teddy sought solace after the deaths of his wife and mother on the same day in 1884.

We love TR because he was an ardent conservationist, and because he was such a big-hearted optimist. His best book, in our opinion, is Letters to Kermit, a collection of the letters Teddy wrote to his second-oldest son, who was away at boarding school when his father was president. While TR struggled with the greatest issues of his day, busting trusts and building navies and negotiating peace treaties, he still found time to write chatty letters to Kermit, sometimes adorning them with charming drawings of elk and horses.

Of course, love is complicated, and as we learned more about TR — by attending conferences with historians such as Douglas Brinkley and Candice Millard — we discovered that parts of his political philosophy weren’t so appealing. He was a bit too fond of war and conquest, and he had some noxious notions about “race suicide” and America’s destiny to dominate Asia and the Pacific. For this reason, I support the recent decision to take down the statue of TR in front of the American Museum of Natural History. Because this statue shows Teddy on horseback next to an African and a Native American walking alongside his horse, it highlights his imperialist and racist attitudes. All in all, though, he was a remarkable president who certainly deserves his hallowed place on Mount Rushmore.

What’s more, the story of TR’s life is fertile ground for historical fiction. Last week, my wife and I drove up to the Adirondacks for a weeklong vacation, and while we were there we paid a special visit to the starting point of Teddy’s Midnight Ride to the Presidency.

So let’s go back to September 1901. Let’s picture President William McKinley shaking hands with the public at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. A man with his right hand wrapped in a handkerchief approaches; he’s an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, and his handkerchief hides a .32-caliber revolver. He shoots McKinley twice in the belly before being tackled by police detectives and onlookers.

McKinley is rushed to the hospital, and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt hurries to Buffalo. But the operation to repair the gunshot wounds appears to be successful, and in the following days McKinley seems to get better. This is a great relief to many bigwigs in the Republican Party, who had encouraged Roosevelt to run as McKinley’s Vice President the year before partly because they’d wanted to stow him in a position where he would have no practical power. (TR greatly upset some of those bigwigs during his earlier stint as New York’s governor.)

Once it looked like McKinley would recover, Teddy — who could never sit still for very long — decided to go hiking in the Adirondacks. He went to a tiny village called Tahawus, which is also the Native American name for nearby Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in New York. (The name means “cloud-splitter.”) Roosevelt set off to climb Mt. Marcy with a few companions, while his second wife Edith and their children remained at the McNaughton Cottage in the village.

Meanwhile, back in Buffalo, McKinley took a turn for the worse. Gangrene festered inside him. The president’s advisers sent a telegram to Tahawus, urging TR to return to Buffalo as quickly as possible, but the vice president was off the grid, camping somewhere in the High Peaks. A band of wilderness guides dashed into the woods to find him, firing their guns as they neared Mt. Marcy. Teddy heard the gunfire and guessed that someone was looking for him. After rendezvousing with the guides, he swiftly hiked down the mountain and reached the village of Tahawus long after nightfall. He couldn’t spend the night with his family at the McNaughton Cottage; instead, he embarked on a desperate 35-mile ride, traveling on muddy roads in horse-drawn buckboard wagons to the town of North Creek, the closest train station. He arrived there at 4:46 a.m. and learned that McKinley was dead. At some point during that midnight ride, TR had become president of the United States.

Today, Tahawus is an Adirondack ghost town. Nothing remains except a few abandoned blast furnaces (the area had been an iron-mining site in the mid-19th century) and the boarded-up McNaughton Cottage, which has been purchased by a preservation group that’s in the process of restoring it. After some poking around, my wife and I found the cottage (see photo above). We also hiked the same wilderness trail that TR used, passing the place where the Hudson River pours down from Henderson Lake (see photo below).

It was inspiring and gratifying to visit yet another place that was important to Teddy Roosevelt. Someday, maybe, I’ll write a piece of fiction that reimagines one of his adventures. But not yet. Even after all these years of studying his life, I feel like I’m still getting to know the man.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website: www.markalpert.com

7 thoughts on “Historical Fiction in the Adirondacks

  1. I am also a huge TR fan. One thing about him I’ve always respected was his fearless approach to life. There’s no doubt his life is ripe for some great historical fiction.

    Thanks for posting this.

  2. Thanks for the peek into Roosevelt’s life, Mr. Alpert. You mention some details I’d never heard. I’ve always loved history…

    And it goes to show me that even Presidents have some good characteristics, but also some not-so-good. 🙂

  3. Great post! I didn’t know about Roosevelt’s writing, and I’m going to look for Letters to Kermit.

    Your post reminds us that — surprise — no one is perfect or 100% aligned with our individual values. I really can’t think of a great American historical figure who didn’t have serious flaws. Jefferson, Washington, and other Founding Fathers owned slaves. JFK and MLK were notoriously unfaithful to their wives. The list goes on. Sadly, when we remove statues we also remove the invitation to people to learn about great historical figures.

  4. I hadn’t given much thought to TR one way or the other until back around 1989/90, when he “appeared” in an episode of the Family Channel show called “Bordertown” about a Mountie/U.S. Marshall who kept the peace there. I was fascinated and his portrayal in that episode seemed to fit the little I knew.

    Then while doing some background research for some historical fiction about a year ago, I came upon some of his writing concerning the Rough Riders & the Spanish American War. And most recently, I started reading the Gaslight Mysteries by Victoria Thompson, and in some of those books, he appears as a background character as a Superintendent of NYC Police (which I didn’t know he was). So he has emerged as a former president I want to read more about.

    I actually have a long term project to read more about many of our past presidents, mostly from beginnings to the first part of 1900’s. The modern age, to me, isn’t nearly as interesting as those days.

  5. The time between McKinley’s death and TDR’s swearing in meant that the US didn’t have a sworn-in president, not that TDR was and wasn’t unaware of it. The Speaker of the House would, however, have held the power in the short term until the Vice President could have been sworn in. (This has been your US Constitution moment.)

    The statue debate makes me really mad. The neighboring city’s government, in their infinite wisdom, wrote a law that said any statue or public object that would upset people can be removed. The morons failed to realize that law can be used to remove a statue of MLK, Jr., or anything else. After life opens up around here, I’m looking forward to the Far Left and Far Right having all kinds of fun with that law. PETA has also expressed interest in removing statues with animals in them. Sigh. Thank God the statue of John Coltrane in my city and the charming pig statues in downtown Lexington, NC, are safe from this law.

    I’m a TDR fan, myself. Robin Williams’ portrayal of him in the NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM franchise was a nice homage to his honorable side. Highly recommended fun movies for people with small kids or goofballs like me who love kid movies.

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