The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America….Timothy Egan

Wallace, ID after the Big Burn of 1910

August 20, 1910. Wallace, Idaho. An advancing wall of flame and destruction about a mile wide, traveling up to 70 miles per hour, is headed for this tiny town. The only thing standing between the fire and the town’s demise are the fledgling firefighters of the newborn US Forest Service, who are completely unprepared for a disaster of this magnitude and are armed with only buckets of water. Most of them have never even seen a forest firej, and have no idea how to fight one. Many of them are new to the United States, drawn to the Forest Service by the promise of a paycheck during economically tough times. The townspeople begin to panic as the fire closes in. Only women and children are allowed on the only train headed out of town. Men are expected to stay and help defend the town from the conflagration, yet it’s the foremost members of the town who try to sneak their way onto the train. Cinders and firebombs begin to drop onto the wood-shingled roofs of the town. Will Wallace survive?

President Theodore Roosevelt and his friend Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the US Forest Service.

The intense and heartbreaking story of the Great Fire of 1910 is chronicled in Timothy Egan’s book, The Big Burn. The fire was the first challenge of Teddy Roosevelt’s US Forest Service, created in 1905 to protect and conserve forest land. Roosevelt was outraged at the greediness of the lumber barons, who wanted to cut down acres of the most beautiful wilderness our country had to offer, and his answer was to protect these vast lands as national parks, where everyone could go to enjoy the beautiful views and peace of nature, while also protecting these areas from any future logging. He named his good friend and fellow conservationist, Gifford Pinchot, to the position of Chief Forester. The fledgling Forest Service was not respected by people in industry and the railroad companies. Although these lands were protected by law, Pinchot did not have enough rangers to keep an eye on all of the lands put aside (and their miniscule budget barely had enough to pay even the rangers they had), and loggers continued to sneak into some areas and cut down trees. Congressmen did not pass legislation to help support the new Forest Service, thanks to the railroad and lumber companies  putting big money in their pockets to turn a blind eye. It seemed to be a losing battle. Yet Pinchot and his “Little GPs” soldiered on the best they could.

1910 was the driest summer in recorded history to that time. Pinchot did not believe in deliberately setting controlled fires to burn off the driest areas, and he worked hard to get his rangers to squelch even the smallest fires caused by lightning strikes or a stray spark from a railroad car’s wheel on a track, thereby preventing Mother Nature from naturally maintaining the state of the forest.  Thanks to Pinchot’s misguided intentions, this resulted in acres upon acres of bone-dry wilderness, a veritable tinderbox for what was to come.

In August 1910, several wildfires spread out over Washington and Idaho were whipped into a frenzy by a Palouser, a rare hurricane force cold front rolling off the Pacific Ocean. The Palouser put wings behind the wildfire, and its high powered winds drove the fire through the dry woods like a train at high speed. It was unstoppable. Pinchot’s rangers were barely given time to run for their own lives, much less protect property and citizens, and most of the rangers would either die or quickly improvise. Ed Pulaski, one of the braver rangers, forced his men into an abandoned mineshaft and forced them all at gunpoint to lay down in the mud until the fire was over, saving all of their lives except for the two that panicked and ran back into the fire. Several immigrant rangers would have the same idea, squeezing into a small cave. They were not so lucky when a large burning tree fell, blocking the mouth of the cave and cooking them alive. The wildfire would eventually burn more than 3 million acres of protected forest in Washington, Idaho and Montana, completely destroying several towns (Wallace would survive only partly burned) and killing 85 people, many of them the brave forest fighters who tried to stop it. Luckily for people in other states, another cold front brought rain, which smothered the fire, preventing further death and destruction.

Ed Pulaski, brave Forest Ranger, outside of the mineshaft that saved him and his men during the Big Burn.

Ironically, it was the inability of the Forest Service to stop this catastrophic wildfire that ultimately brought it the attention and respect it deserved. When Congressmen toured the smoking ruins of cities and saw the charred hulks of dead horses and men, they realized the powerful destruction of fire, and how important it was to be protected in the future from similar situations. The Big Burn influenced passage of the Weeks Act in 1911, which allowed for better cooperation between the Forest Service and state authorities for fire control.

This was a really good book. I enjoyed the stories about Teddy Roosevelt wrestling everyone who came to his house, and I was angry and frustrated by the government’s inability to see the importance of protecting our natural heritage. Roosevelt and Pinchot were pioneers ahead of their time. We have them to thank for the beauties of Grand Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Yellowstone National Park. Think of them the next time you visit one of our gorgeous parks.

And only YOU can prevent forest fires.

Grade: A


Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse….James Swanson

James Swanson, author of "Bloody Crimes"

James Swanson loves him some Abraham Lincoln. Not only was he born on Lincoln’s birthday (coincidence?), but he’s been collecting Lincoln memorabilia since he was ten years old. He brought his love for Lincoln to the page with his fantastic book Manhunt: The Twelve Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer a few years back, which documented the national manhunt to track down John Wilkes Booth following the assassination of Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in 1865. In his latest book, Bloody Crimes, rather than chasing after Booth, we remain behind at Ford’s Theater to witness Lincoln’s last living moments, and also to see the unfolding of the improbable journey his corpse would take following his death on its way back to Springfield, IL, where he was to be buried.

Once Lincoln passed away in Washington, it was decided that he would be buried in Illinois, and would travel there with his dead son Willie by train. Once word of the travel plans leaked out, towns along the train route began vying for the chance for Lincoln’s body to stop in their town so that they could pay tribute to him and America could see the face of their fallen leader. What began as a direct train route soon became a meandering journey through the major towns of the North, such as New York, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Chicago. Elaborate parades, tributes and viewings were planned in each town he would stop in, with people standing in line for hours and in all weather just for the chance to walk by Lincoln’s body and say goodbye. People whose towns Lincoln did not stop in crowded along the tracks for a glimpse of the train as it rolled by. Signs, banners and arches, homemade or extravagant, lined the route as well. The passing of Lincoln’s corpse throughout our war-torn country brought its people together both in mourning and in determination to help their country to rise again as he had envisioned it.

What sounded great on paper presented a logistical challenge. Lincoln died on April 15, his funeral train trip did not even begin until April 21, and he was not buried until May 3 in Springfield. That’s 18 days his dead body remained above ground. Back during the Civil War, refrigeration in any form did not exist. Embalming techniques were rustic at best. And Lincoln was shot in April, so springtime with its warmer weather and rains were in full swing. The embalmers who would accompany Lincoln on his final journey were in a race against decomposition and decay, and they had the formidable task of keeping the corpse intact (and viewable) for the entire trip. They would utilize techniques such as low lighting, white makeup, and tons and tons of flowers (to mask the smell) in order to get him through the trip.

The train car on the lower left is the car Lincoln's and son Willie's bodies traveled in during their train trip to Springfield.

It wouldn’t be a Swanson book if we weren’t off chasing someone, so Swanson also tells the story of the hunt for Jefferson Davis, the ousted President of the Confederacy. It was mistakenly believed in the early hours of Lincoln’s assassination, when details about Booth’s conspiracy were just coming to light, that Davis had a hand in the dastardly deed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Following the Confederate defeat and fall of Richmond on April 2, 1865, Davis and his cabinet fled into the South, ostensibly with the millions in Confederate gold that comprised the Southern treasury. Like Booth experienced in Manhunt, not everyone in the South greeted Davis with open arms. Many were afraid to help him for fear of Union retaliation. Like Booth, Davis spent several days and nights hiding in the woods, with only a few friends to rely on, and a price on his head ($100,000 was offered for anyone who turned him in) . And like Booth, both were captured by coincidence. Davis was captured by Union troops on May 2, 1865 in Irwinsville, GA, with his family and several of his cabinet members. Although Booth was shot on sight and his conspirators hanged, Davis was jailed for two years and then released. Even though he had led the secessionist Confederacy and ordered the killing of Union soldiers, he was never tried for treason, but was symbolically released in order to help the country move on from the war and its horrors.

Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.

This was a really fascinating book, and unlike Manhunt, did not slow down towards the end. I was thrilled earlier this month to visit Gettysburg, PA, and had my picture taken with good old Abe. I have really come to respect our 16th President and the revolutionary ideas he had to rid our country of slavery and help bring our divided country together. He changed our country forever, and gave his life because of those beliefs. Swanson’s books have only improved that respect. Even cooler, Swanson also rewrote this book  for teens. Its title is Bloody Times: The Funeral for Abraham Lincoln and the Manhunt for Jefferson Davis.

Grade: A+

Speech-Less: Tales of A White House Survivor…..Matt Latimer

Matt Latimer (right) with President GW Bush in the Oval Office.

It was Matt Latimer’s childhood dream to be a White House speechwriter. Growing up in Flint, MI, the sole Republican in a Democratic household, he channeled politics from a young age the way some kids play sports or video games, chasing after his Republican heroes for autographs at conventions like they were movie stars. Latimer would eventually get his chance at his dream job, but would walk away after seeing what really went on behind closed White House doors during the death throes of George W. Bush’s presidency. His story is chronicled hilariously and poignantly in his memoir Speech-Less.

Latimer spares no one his incise observations and insider details. On his first boss, Senator Spence Abraham: “….my entire job in the Senate was to abet a series of deliberate frauds. We were reading letters the senator never read, writing responses he apparently didn’t review, and now even signing his name.” 

While working for Congressman Nick Smith: “Nick claimed his mother needed an operation. The family had to decide whether to spend money for the operation or use it to pay expenses on the farm and buy land. They voted, and the farm won. Nick shook his head. “It’s not as bad as it sounds,” he said. “She got a vote, too.””

After a run-in with his one-time Republican idol, Kay Bailey Hutchison: “Many people repeated the claim that she once slapped a staffer back in Texas. In Kyl’s office, we hired a former KBH purse boy to work for us…..whenever her name was mentioned, he seemed to shake a little.”

On President Bush: “When Ed Gillespie once asked Bush if he wanted cameras to follow him around to chronicle his last 100 days in office, the president shook his head. With a slight smile on his face, he said, “If I had a camera following me around all day, I’d look like a total a$$hole.”

On Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson: “Secretary Paulson wanted to pay more than the securities were likely worth to put more money into the markets as soon as possible. This was not how the president’s proposal had been advertised to the public or the Congress. The real problem wasn’t that the president didn’t understand what his administration wanted to do. It was that the treasury secretary didn’t seem to know, changed his mind, had misled the president, or some combination of the three.”

On presidential candidate John McCain: “To me, praising McCain was basically slapping Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley in the face. One thing I absolutely refused to do was to type the words “President John McCain” into any speech draft. I could type “president”. I could type “John”. I could type “McCain”. But never would those words appear together.”

Quoting President Bush’s thoughts on Joe Biden: “”If bullshit was currency”, he said, straight faced, “Joe Biden would be a billionaire.””

….and on Sarah Palin: “”What is she, the governor of Guam?”” and “”You know, just wait a few days until the bloom is off that rose,” he said. Then he made a very smart assessment. “This woman is being put into a position she is not even remotely prepared for,” he said. “She hasn’t spent one day on the national level. Neither has her family. Let’s wait and see how she looks five days out.””

This book is a can’t-miss, irreverent and thought-provoking insider’s look at Washingtonian life at its best and worst, and an idealist’s collision with the disillusioning realities of politics and his party. I felt that the last portion of the book dragged a bit compared to the rest, but overall enjoyed it, laughing out loud at several parts. Here is a hilarious clip of Latimer on Stephen Colbert’s show The Colbert Report; it’s of course very funny too. Don’t miss the book.

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer….James L. Swanson

John Wilkes Booth, actor and assassin of Abraham Lincoln

Sometime between 12:30pm and 2pm on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth was in the right place at the right time to receive a piece of news that would change the course of history forever. While picking up his mail at Ford’s Theater, he heard the news that President Abraham Lincoln and his wife would be attending a play there that evening. This seemingly trivial piece of news galvanized Booth, a famous actor with Southern sympathies who was embittered and angry at the end of the Civil War, to plot the simultaneous assassinations of the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State that evening.

Fortunately, Booth’s plans went awry and Lincoln was the only one of the three targeted men who died that night. George Atzerodt, who was to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson in his hotel room, chickened out at the last minute, and Lewis Powell met with some logistical difficulties when he attempted to break into the sickroom of Secretary William Seward. Seward was recovering from a head injury sustained earlier in the week, and was surrounded by family members and nurses at his home. Powell had to fight his way past them both on his way into the sickroom and on his way back out, inflicting only facial injuries on Seward.

The assassination of Lincoln is only the beginning of James L Swanson’s fascinating book, Manhunt, which chronicles the hours leading up to the assassination, the deed itself, and the twelve days following, as Booth and his co-conspirators flee the authorities. Booth was barely able to escape Washington that night, having broken his left leg in the jump from the President’s box to the stage at Ford’s Theater, and conning his way across the lone bridge out of Washington, which closed after dark. Feeling he would meet with more support for his dastardly deed in the newly humbled South, he and co-conspirator David Herold ventured down dark country roads into Maryland and Virginia, while his less-lucky co-conspirators Atzerodt and Powell were picked up by the police in Washington.

Unfortunately for Booth, he did not meet with the support he expected from Southerners. Many of the people he was directed to for help reacted with horror at the thought of harboring a fugitive assassin, regardless of whether or not they agreed with his ideology. It didn’t help Booth’s case that the government put a price on his head and that of his co-conspirators, and threatened with jail time or death anyone who helped them in any way. No one wanted to be connected with Booth. Expecting Southern hospitality, Booth was shocked when he was often thrown out of houses or outright refused him entry. He spent most of his fugitive twelve days in severe pain, sleeping on the ground in the woods with his left leg in a makeshift splint. He had to depend on the good will of those who agreed to help him for safety and scraps of food or information.

The Garrett Farm, where Booth was captured, shot and later died.

Although he did not meet with much help during his escape, Booth for a time had the authorities spinning in the wind. The trail ran cold from the time he left Washington almost until the day he was captured. Inaccurate reports of Booth sightings flooded into the office of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, who had control of the manhunt. People who were Booth lookalikes (and even those who just sort of looked like him) were arrested and/or harrassed by the public. While hiding out with Herold in a pine thicket near the house of a Confederate sympathizer for six days of the twelve, Booth completely dropped off the map as far as the authorities were concerned, even though at one point a guard of soldiers passed very close by.  Until Thomas Jones, the man who helped Booth and Herold during those six days in the thicket and ultimately got them a boat to get into Virginia, told his story of the so-called “lost days” in 1883, no one knew where Booth was during that time. It was not until Booth’s unlucky meeting with several Confederate soldiers once he crossed over into Virginia, one of whom later positively identified Booth to the hunters, that the army finally got a bead on his whereabouts. Once this occurred, Booth and Herold were located at Garrett’s Farm the same day. Although Herold turned himself in, Booth stubbornly refused to be taken alive. The barn he was hiding out in was lit on fire, and as Booth prepared to shoot his way out of the barn, he was shot accidentally in the neck by one of the soldiers. Paralyzed from the neck down, Booth died three hours later.

Swanson doesn’t spend much time on the trial that convicted Herold, Atzerodt, Powell and Mary Surratt to death by hanging on July 7, 1865, possibly because he has co-written an entire other book on the subject (Lincoln’s Assassins: Their Trial and Execution). His moment-by-breath-held-moment accounting of the assassination itself will, I promise you, take care of what little nails you have left if you’re a nail biter. I missed that same trip-wire tension as the hunters raced for Garrett’s Farm; it was almost as if Swanson ran out of steam. The book was still phenomenally well-written and was not the dry history tome it could have been. I would recommend it if you enjoy true crime and history rolled together.

Grade: B+

Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation….John Carlin

Nelson Mandela

When Nelson Mandela was released from a South African prison in 1990 after serving 27 years, he was returning to a nation torn apart by apartheid. Riots tore through the streets, people were imprisoned and executed for very little reason, and white man was against black man. ‘Separate but unequal’ could have been the slogan of South Africa for the apartheid years, which began in 1948 and lasted for nearly 50 years. Mandela, who had been a radical anti-apartheid leader before his imprisonment in 1964, could easily have used his almost god-like standing with black South Africans and the understandable anger anyone would feel after slightly more than a quarter century behind bars to mobilize his people and cause civil war….but he didn’t. In fact, he took a completely different tactic, which would not only be millions of times more efficient, but would help to bring his shattered country together.

John Carlin’s book, Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made A Nation, tells the story of Mandela’s quest to reunite the country of South Africa in a very nonconventional, and slightly incredible way: rallying the nation behind the South African rugby national team, the Springboks. Rugby had been viewed for years by black South Africans as the ‘white man’s game’ and the symbol of all that was wrong with their country. White South Africans, or Afrikaners,by contrast, loved their sport and their team. The rugby teams of the 1990’s reported meeting very hostile crowds worldwide as they traveled abroad for games, as they were considered symbols of the apartheid and defacto supporters of it. Militant black South Africans rallied to have the team blocked from international competition as a protest towards the treatment they were receiving in their country, and it worked, which angered their Afrikaner countrymen. As an olive branch toward the Afrikaners when he became president in 1993, Mandela reinstated the rugby team and insisted they keep the name Springbok as well as the green rugby jerseys, both of which had been considered apartheid symbols.

While in prison, Mandela spent a lot of time reading about Afrikaners, learning their language, and getting to know his Afrikaner captors. He learned that Afrikaners, underneath, were good people who had been raised in apartheid society and knew nothing else. He also realized that Afrikaners were paralyzed with fear that if the black Africans came to power again, they would exact the revenge that the Afrikaners deserved for the injustices of apartheid. Instead of exacting this revenge, Mandela reached out his hand to Afrikaners in respect and friendship…and it worked. Hard core apartheid supporters melted like butter in his presence, and the two races began to work together. Mandela kept Afrikaner members of his staff in place after he came to the presidency, when most were convinced they would be thrown out. He reached out to Francois Pienaar, captain of the Springboks, to enlist his and his team’s support to unite South Africa under the slogan of “One Team, One Country”. The Springboks did their part by learning to sing the black African national anthem and reaching out to black youth by holding rugby clinics where they could learn the game. Mandela wore the Springbok colors when he went to talk to his people to encourage them to not see Afrikaners as the enemy, but as fellow South Africans. The unbelievable Sprinbok victory at the 1995 Rugby World Cup was the epitome of all Mandela had hoped to accomplish. Black and white cheered and hugged in the stands, and partied in the streets. Both black and white cheered and called Mandela’s name as he came onto the field to award the cup to the team. It was the beginning of a new era in South Africa.

The book was touted as a sports book, but I felt it was more political than sports driven. It was primarily the story of Mandela and how his years in prison catalyzed his vision for his country. It gave a sweeping view of the struggles and destruction of apartheid, and the shaky baby steps the nation took as Mandela was freed from prison and took office. The story of the Springboks didn’t begin until the middle of the book, and it was a great example of how Afrikaners were converted to the messages of acceptance and forgiveness preached by Mandela. Stories such as how the players cried through the black national anthem, and how the Afrikaners came to accept the lone black player, Chester Williams, as one of their own, were really touching.

I was glad I read the book, after how much I enjoyed the movie, which if you haven’t seen it rent it NOW. Morgan Freeman is AMAZING as Mandela, and Matt Damon is nice eye candy as Pienaar. The book gave a more complete background on the atrocities of apartheid, and made what Mandela accomplished and how he affected people that much more awe-inspiring. There are not many people who have lived on Earth who have had the ability to change hearts and minds as much as Mandela has. We can all learn a lesson from him.  Below is a wonderful segment that ESPN put together when Mandela was given the Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 2009. Check it out if you can.

Grade: A-