Of Robber Barons, Teddy Roosevelt and Firefighters Running into Flames

Posted By Mike Padgett

May 11, 2010

If you’re interested in reading about everyday life in the United States in the early 20th Century, and how its citizens survived the sorry side of government, read Pulitzer Prize-winner Timothy Egan’s “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America.”

Egan, a Seattle-based journalist who writes a column for The New York Times, based his book on a monster forest fire in Montana, Idaho and Washington state in August 1910. The era was the heyday of the robber barons in railroads, banking and timber, to name a few.

“The Big Burn” is a book about timber, conservation, politics, and several small forest fires that merged into a runaway conflagration in three states. The fire pushed by 80 mph winds consumed forests as well as settlers, livestock and towns.

Remove the jacket of “The Big Burn” to see a photo of a cave in which several firefighters sought refuge from an inferno that consumed more than 3 million acres in Montana, Idaho and Washington state in 1910. Copyright photo by Mike Padgett

Nearly 10,000 men were recruited to fight the fires. Settlers tried to bury their belongings in their backyard to escape the flames. Some settlers and migrants-turned-firefighters became trapped by the flames. Egan describes how men fighting the fire became running torches as they tried to outrun the waves of flames. Their hair caught fire first. Then the flames melted exposed skin on their hands and faces. A few survived by diving into creeks, lakes or abandoned mines in the mountains.

Egan quotes the grim words written by a Seattle reporter visiting the aftermath: “The dead bodies where fire has swept directly over them seem to be turned to charcoal. Fingers, ears and even arms drop off when the bodies are touched.”

In two days, nearly 3.2 million acres of timber on national forests and private and state land were burned. The racing inferno pushed down the forests, creating “a weave of horizontal timber” several feet thick in places.

“The canyons and hillsides were covered with a twisted mass of broken, blackened trees, in some places five feet deep,” Egan writes, quoting a ranger’s recollections.

For many weeks, the fire in the Northwest and Congress’ subsequent debates about increasing the U.S. Forest Service budget dominated headlines. The challenges and risks faced by forest rangers caught the attention of author Zane Grey, who “made a forest ranger the hero of his next book, ‘The Young Forester,’” Egan writes.

Integral to the story is the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service and the power of the robber barons.

Egan backgrounds the book heavily with President Theodore Roosevelt, conservationists John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, financier J.P. Morgan, and U.S. Sen. William Clark, the powerful Montana politician who later owned copper mines in Arizona and played a role in the establishment of Las Vegas, Nev. Clarkdale, Ariz., is named after him, as is Nevada’s Clark County.

Egan writes that Clark’s influence in politics and business was well known. He says Clark was reported to have said, “I never bought a man who was not for sale.” Egan describes Clark as “a sunken-faced gnomish man with a paintbrush beard and eyes that cut with a slicing stare.”

One of the reluctant heroes in the book is Ed Pulaski. Egan describes him as “a middle-aged master of carpentry, metal forging, riding, route finding and other skills that had allowed him to survive in the Rocky Mountain West at a time when it was being fully opened up.”

Pulaski was on the front lines of that war in the forest. He survived with major injuries. Egan writes that Pulaski “took a faceful of flame on Saturday night, burned over many parts of his body, the skin so raw and festered, blind in one eye, unable to see very well in the other.”

Pulaski died in 1931, but his legacy lives today in the form of a tool he forged in his shop and tried to patent. Every firefighter knows how to use the Pulaski, a tool Egan describes as an “ax and hoe-type blade on a single handle.”

“The Big Burn” is a glimpse into U.S. history, complete with earlier versions of today’s heroes and villains.

Egan’s other books include “The Worst Hard Time,” “The Winemaker’s Daughter,” “Lasso The Wind,” “Breaking Blue,” and “The Good Rain.”

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May 11th, 2010

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