The Big Burn : Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America

by Timothy Egan

A dramatic account of the worst forest fire in American history by the author of the best-selling and National Book Award-winning THE WORST HARD TIME. 

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780547394602
  • ISBN-10: 0547394608
  • Pages: 352
  • Publication Date: 09/07/2010
  • Carton Quantity: 24

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About the Book
About the Author
  • 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.

  • 1

    “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 m...

  • "Egan brings a touching humanity to this story of valor and cowardice in the face of a national catastrophe, paying respectful attention to Roosevelt's great dream of conservation and of an America 'for the little man.'" -Publishers Weekly, starred review

    "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