♪ >> if somebody reads your book, what do you hope they will take away from it? >> i hope they will take away from it a sense of what a special place arlington is in the american story and how it got that way. because we tend to come here today and you look at it and it looks finished; it looks complete. it wasn't that way from the beginning. it evolved from one thing into another thing into another thing and so what i tried to do in my book was to say, how did it get to be the place, the national shrine, we know it as today? what was it before?
what was it before that? and so i tried in my book peel back the layers of what arlington was and how it became what it is today. >> over 4 million people visit arlington national cemetery each year and nearly 100 grave side services are conducted each week. to learn more, visit arlingtoncemetery.org. >> national book award winner author timothy egan the "the big burn," recalls the largest forest fire in history. mr. egan recalls the struggle of forest fires. the "christian science monitor" "los angeles times" and "kansas city star" selected "the big burn" as one of their top books in 2009. fact and fiction bookstore in montana hosts the hour-long event. >> thank you so much.
it's terrific to be here in montana. i've been on a book tour, i've been at 25 cities. now i'm home basically where the fire started. the source of the story and the source for so many joy for me in spokane and fishing in the creek and now trying to look at that time as a storyteller so thank you for coming out on this gorgeous, chris him wonderful montana night. the rest of us could look at us with envy. first i wanted to open with a wonderful quote from one of my favorite quote from an author who didn't have his first book published until he was 70 years old but it took a long time for that masterpiece and it was called "a river runs through it" and he said -- they were ministers kids, they grew up in montana.
they were raised thinking that the world was full of love but as mclean said, my brother and i soon discovered that the world outside was full of bastards. the number increasing rapidly the farther one gets from montana. that just nails it for me. also, i should just say this, mclean, after that that book was a huge success, all these new york publishers were tripping over themselves to print his next book, which was a book about fire, and it took him 14 years to finish "young men and fire" he died before he could finish it. the publisher who would failed to publish his book and we'll do -- and he wrote back, you sir, do not know i'm type. i'm scots irish and we have long memories. he said if i were the last author left on earth and you were the last publisher, that, sir, would be the end of books as we knew it.
[laughter] >> so he got his kicks in, mclean, a true montanan. i was drawn to this story after writing about the dust bowl because as was said in the introduction i love these clashes between human beings and nature and you can't have more elemental than human beings than fire. it's an old as humanity itself. and i'll tell you the truth, i was really going to write initially just a fire story. and to tell you the truth i was going to write kind of a cool fire story 'cause i was attracted to the perfect storm quality of this firestorm. we've never had a fire like this in our history. 3 million acres in a day half. a state of connecticut burns in 36 hours. by comparison a few months ago you had these fires in l.a., the l.a. national forest.
it turned at two weeks at their peak they were 100,000 acres and blanketed the east of the l.a. basin. 2,000 degree temperatures. a fire moving faster -- this is what the men said at the time. faster than a horse could go at full gallop. and we had never tried to fight a wildfire before, and never tried to fight it on this scale. this is the first time we assembled an army of men and they were almost all men except for a woman cook, a homesteader who outlived the men who became the last survivor of the fire. but an army of men mostly immigrants, poor irish, and poor italian. it was the peak of italian immigration. they had just opened the gates to the southern mediterranean and they were treated terribly. they called them beaten men from beaten races and poor irish. many of whom had grew up in butte who were the famine people.
they were the descendents who survived the famine. they were getting paid 25 cents an hour to come here and prevent this catastrophic wildfire. now, those of you live near montana we get dry summers and you'll get these lightning strikes, these dry lightning thunderstorms. there's no precipitation. i was trying to explain this in reading the other washington, d.c., 'cause when they get thunder and lightning, they get torrential rains, lightning storms come down and no precipitation. you had these bolts come down, in august of 1910, almost 3,000 of these little fires burning in the newly created national forest of the northern rockies just literally a few miles up the hill here, up in the bitter root mountains and so they are concerned. this is the age when towns were being burned to the ground. denver, seattle, chicago, san francisco. they were gravely concerned
about fire. they had chased every other element out of the wild, grizzly bears were largely gone, wolves were largely eliminated, pison was gone. the only thing they still feared was fire. so when this thing happened they assembled an army to try to prevent it from getting catastrophic and then it blew up. and i hope there's some people in the audience here tonight who fought fires before. i've only been as an embed and i was in the yellowstone fire in 1988 and there was nothing so scared me being in yellowstone fire when that fire blew up. it's like 10 jet engines. i was child to the bone. when the fire starts to spot and shoot up from crown to crown. that's what happened you had 70 miles an hour winds which are officially classified as hurricane-force winds. now, i know what a 70 miles an hour wind was because last year i was in a documentary for the
history channel in the dust bowl and some knucklehead, let's recreate 70 mile winds and put them in here. they put this flat-bed truck out and put two giant fans on it and fired these things up and poured a whole bunch of dust on me and had me being blown back and, you know, because it was a union production there was a doctor onsite. [laughter] >> so i was totally thrown back. i was a tumble weed in these 7 miles an hour winds. that's what caused this fire to blow up. 70 miles an hour winds. so, you know, it was a total failure in terms of human beings being able to beat the fire. as i looked at this thing, you know, i thought, well, you know, that's a great story in and of itself. what was it like to be a ranger five years into the history -- the formal founding of the united states state forest service. what was it like to be an immigrant in italy. these two boys who gave it up for theodore roosevelt dream to be here in the strange american
west so far from italy and suddenly fighting a fire. what was it like to be a black soldier. there were these african-american buffalo soldiers who were sent to idaho to wallace, idaho, thereby, almost doubling the population of blacks in the state of idaho by their arrival treated terribly. the headline in wallace dusky dough boys in town and they would have stories about their singing and their gambling at night and it turned out they saved two towns. they were heroic as well. i was going to write the quality and the drama of the wildfire when you didn't know how to fight one. but like so many americans before me, i absolutely fell head over heels for this man whose chiseled on mount rushmore, theodore roosevelt. and i also felt in a strange way for a man who's not chiseled on the forest service. let me tell you about each of these men because they figure so much in this fire. and this fire changed our history.
it's so interesting to think here missoula, two nights of pure hell changed everything in terms of saving our public land but changed also the nature of firefighting in itself. but let me just back up. theodore roosevelt is a son of wealth and privilege. he's the only native of new york city ever to be president. he's our youngest president by the way, too. kennedy was a little younger but he was elected. this is our youngest to -- you remember theodore roosevelt got the presidency when mckinley was assassinated. he grows up a son of privilege in new york city. he's fascinated by bugs, insects, the outdoors but he's told as a very young man he probably won't live to his 21st birthday. he's a sickly child. he's asthmatic. he has all manners of ailments and he's nearsighted. he wears spectacles. he's scrawny. he's almost anorexic. he's told if he does want to live to his 21st birthday he probably shouldn't go outdoors.
and roosevelt wills his way to strength. he says in his autobiography, i will will myself stronger. he was afraid of the dark. he was afraid the trees. he was afraid of horses. this most robust and male of our presidents was basically this very scared child and he wills his way to strength. he goes to harvard. he falls in love with this beautiful woman, and he leaves harvard and he starts his political career at a very young age. he joins the republican party. then he said was the least corrupt of the two corrupt parties as he said in new york, the legislature 100% corrupt but 98% corrupt. he had family wealth so he could afford virtue and didn't have to be corrupt. he's elected to the assembly at age 22. at age 25 he's the leader of the republican party in the state of the new york. then tragedy strikes. on valentine's day, 1884, his
wife gives birth on west 57th street in new york where they're living. and she dies on childbirth. she dies upon giving birth to their first child, aalice. -- alice. he goes upstairs where his mother is living and she dies on the same day. this is our most prolive genetic writer. theodore roosevelt wrote 15 books before his 40th birthday. he wrote 10,000 letters while he was president. he wrote -- he was a prolific diaryist. what does he put in his diary in 1884 he writes a big shaky x on february 14th and beneath that x is a single line. he says, the light has gone out of my life. so he gives his newborn baby to his sister to raise her. he resigns his position in the legislature and he says goodbye
toe wealth and new york and he moves out west. he moves to the dakota territory and he becomes a new man, a different man. a transformed man. he sets up shop -- i was going to -- i hope there was a stage up here. but in a little cabin which i saw about 400 square feet. and he hangs his bearskin rugs up next to the fireplace and he brings all his books in by train. and he puts a rocking chair next to the fire and he becomes a cowboy. and he becomes a man who lives and tries to get rid of his grief from the west. and he spends the next two years as not a attitude rancher. -- a dude rancher. someone calls him four eyes. he spent three days chasing the guy who stole his horse. he was a tough s.o.b. as they say but he was a lover of literature and nature. he's restored, the grief that happens to him from losing his life and his mother is somewhat
mitigated by the outdoors. it makes him a little whole again. but he sees something, he sees the west which he's mythologists and all this buffalo and wild animals is almost gone. he sees that the american eden barely 100 years to us being a nation is all but destroyed. birds -- even the birds which he thought there would be millions and millions of birds 'cause that's what lewis and clark described when they came up from missouri not far from where roosevelt set up his shot in that little cabin so he goes back to new york city after two years. and he's this transformed man. the west has saved him. he said i owe man more than any man owes him to the west. let's fast forward to 1900. mckinley is president. roosevelt was vice president. and the corrupt people in albany did not like having roosevelt so he went and placed on the vice-presidency.
mckinley is assassinated. he's not dead yet. roosevelt is hiking. the secret service goes and get him and brings him back down. they think mckinley is going to day but after a day they think he may go through it but seven days later the secret service goes to get him and the president is dead. it takes roosevelt another 36 hours to get to buffalo where he is sworn in as our youngest president. now, he says later in his autobiography, he doesn't say it at the time, remember, he's leader of the republican party. i wanted to transform the republican party, as he says, into a, quote, fairly radical progressive party. that's the exact quote. fairly, radical, progressive party. he doesn't tell the country that but he says it in his diary and to do that he needs gifford pinchot.
one of his three homes where he grew up had 27 turrets and about half a dozen fireplaces. he grows up in this castle called gray towers. [inaudible] >> i'm glad we have here tonight. [laughter] >> pinchot thinks like roosevelt. they think that the american colossas is tearing apart what we have. at some point we will have a timber famine. that we will run out of tears. what's left over from this louisiana purchase will be torn apart. they set over an area, not quite, almost the area of france. it's national parks, it's national forest, it's national wildlife refuges. they do it by executive order. the congress stops it before the
end and roosevelt pinchot set aside another 16 million acres and they have these rangers bring in these maps to the floor of the white house. i have a scene where roosevelt describes -- he says have you put in the upper flat head valley? i remember being up there once and seeing this magnificent herd of elk so let's include. and they are drawing these boundaries all over the west and -- this is why these original forest rangers -- they were called the arrangers. they were in on creation. they're drawing the boundaries and they're out of yale and they're given these huge magnificent forests for them to take over. so they create these national forests. but there's pushback. there's tons of pushback. remember, this is the end of the gilded age. you have never in our history have we had a bigger gap between rich and poor until just a few years ago during the wall street peak. but you have rockefellers, guggenheim, who hated roosevelt.
they said remove went out of the white house they asked morgan what he thought, i from some lion will do his duty. [laughter] >> that's how they felt about him. j.j. hill who built the railroad and rockefeller who built a railroad through the bitter roots. they don't like these national forest designations they are used to get land for free because the railroads have been given an area about the size of new england to build those land grants and certainly with us in montana. they fight roosevelt. there's one more character i should mention before i move on here. you had a united states senator here once named william clark. and he wanted to be the richest man in the world. he was utterly corrupt and fairly honest about his corruption. he made his money in being one of the copper barons of butte, montana, at a time when we needed copper at a time copper took off. and he bought his senate seat. at the time senators, united
states senators, were not elected by the people. they were elected by the legislature. that means there's some corruption when we saw blagojevich in chicago. he did it in these monogrammed envelopes where w.h.c. was stamped was stuffed with $100 bills. he said i never bought a man who was not for sale. so clark buys his senate seat and promptly leaves montana. he goes to new york city and he wants to be one of these gilded age titans. he builds 106-room house in manhattan a few blocks where these other guys are living, these guggenheim and these powers. mark twain who was still kicking
around said about your former senator of clark of montana. he's the most disgusting creature that the republic has yet to produce. so clark spends his one time in the united states senate mostly living in his 106-room palace in manhattan and he has one great passion in the senate. do you know what it is? stop the national forests. so he's one of roosevelt's villains, too. these are the people he's fighting against. clark is a democrat, by the way, roosevelt is a republican. so the parties have flipped in many ways. clark's little asterisk is he cofounds las vegas. but that's who he was. so that's what they're up against. let's talk about the forest service itself for just a moment here.
pinchot wanted these men to be the finest people in public service. so he endows the school in yale with this pinchot money, the yale school of forestry. not everyone came from yale but a lot of them came out of yale and they were just full of inspiration. they were fighting for what they called the great crusade. this dream of conservation. they thought, you know -- there's no more noble cause for a young man, they thought, than to serve the united states forest service. and pinchot by the way claims that he -- this is in his memoir, he invented the term conservation. just to give you a sense of how public policy was formulated between these two most excited personality. they used to go for a walk and they occasionally would skinny dip together even late in november like we are now and i was trying to think what it would be like today if, say, you
know, karl rove and george bush were skinny dipping in the potomac or rahm emanuel or barack obama how on you cable news cycle would play this. they would go for this horseback ride or skinny dip in the potomac. they say roosevelt consumed -- burned up 2,000 calories before noon and eight cups of coffee with sugar as well. but, you know, that's what the conservation idea came from. it came on one of these hikes in rock creek park that he brought the idea to roosevelt. and it's a very simple idea. they didn't call it environmentalism or save the earth. they simply said this, we are a nation of 92 million people. what will it be like when we're a nation of 300 million people. by the way, of course we are a nation of more than 300 million. will there be anything left for our great grandchildren? it was simply the idea let's not consume it all in our generation. we owe something to future generations. that was the simple idea around conservation.
so they set up this public land and they set it up for the little guy, now remember they are not taking private land and putting it in the public domain. they are taking the leftover louisiana purchase and other lands and designating it for service land, national parkland, national wildlife refuge and other uses. so on the eve of the fire of 1910, here's what you have. roosevelt has left office. gifford pinchot is fired. the forest service is being underfunded. they're making $900 a year -- a ranger with a yale degree and i tried to do the adjusted for inflation math that's less than a grade school teacher makes right now. they have to pay for their own horses. they have to be armed because here in montana a ranger was shot and killed and no one was charged and the person who killed him later said i mistook him for a deer. so they are facing this fairly hostile environment in the woods as well and these gilded age powers. william clarks, he's guggenheims
are in for the kill. they want to defund the agency. the dream is going to die. it's 5 years old in 1910 and its defenders are gone. it's orphaned and then the fire happens. and i say it was the fire that saved america because though they lost, though they were routed, though five towns burned to the ground, most of them to leave the map, i dare you any one of you to define taft, montana, as i did once a town of 3,000, nothing. wind blowing through the trees. not even a footings of a town. i defy you to find grand forks, idaho, another bustling town gone, completely erased. five towns burned to the ground, 100 men die, 3 million acres burned, scorched, incinerated and what roosevelt did when this happened, he's returned from africa and a lion has not done its duty and he is extremely angry. he sees the finest of young men having died on behalf of the great crusade which is what they
called it. so he goes around as roosevelt did -- by the way, you know he invented the term "bully pulpit" because that was his favorite expression. i heard a voice recording of his and i don't think he'd do well on the television age. he had a somewhat high squeaky voice which doesn't match the physical presence of him. and he goes around saying these people were martyrs. they died for your public land. he does what any politician, good politician can do. myth mytholists and i come back from the reading in the east and i told people in virginia and pennsylvania and massachusetts that their national forest which they have along the spine of the alleghenies, they owe to this fire in montana. because there was a bill to create national forests of the east and it had never passed even during roosevelt's time because after the fire happened
public sentiment shifted and historians directed the creation of the big east of national forests of 1910. so it did change. it did save the american public land's dream but they took away the wrong fire lesson too. thereafter the fire service vowed they would put out every fire. so the forest service which wasn't intended to be this became the fire service. and to this day in some years more than half their budget are spent on fires. and you have almost 20 million americans living within a half mile of a national forest. so people who hated the national forest then they are loved to death now. you have 300 million visitor days to these national forests. the recreational council says there's nothing that draws more people to the outdoors than these national forests they are loved to death but they become the fire service. so they had something called the 10:00 rule which was that if a fire happened on your watch on that day, it had to be put out by 10:00 the next day.
and norman mclean writing his wonderful book "young men and fire" said that forest rangers coming of age after that thereafter had 1910 on the brain. because it was expected that you would be judged by how well you did in putting out fires. so, you know, there are some fires that we can't put out. there are some fires that human beings should never be anywhere near. this was one of those fires. i don't think we could have beat it back with any force today even with aerial force and the kind of stuff we had. it did save our public lands dream but they took away the wrong forest lesson. i would like to read a brief passage here and then i'll take a couple of questions. i wanted to give you an idea of what it was like to be a forest ranger in 1910 because again most of them are the brightest of bright. they're the best and the brightest. again they are coming out of these ivy league schools primarily yale. but not all of them. there was a guy who you in the audience know.
a blue collar guy, kicked around, middle-aged but the one indisputable hero and the polaski tool which is an ax and a blade on the other end is named for him. and he was a hero and he didn't come out of yale. they were called the little g.p., gifford pinchot. he knew what it was like out here because he lived out here. the other ones did not. they come out of here from yale and they come to these new national forests and they are in their 20s and they're being given charge of, you know, an area bigger than some eastern states, okay? so they have these giant national forests. the average beat, the acreage for a single ranger is 300,000 acres per ranger. that was the beat they had to walk. and it's all full of interesting characters. people aren't necessarily taking the idea of national forests the way pinchot and roosevelt intended which was that it would be land for the little guy. so this is what i'm going to
read an idea of what it was like for a new ranger to newly arrive here in the great state of montana and go out and check out his national forest. in a thicket of dark montana woods just downslope from the idaho divide, a town sprang up with one prostitute for every three men and a murder rate higher than that of new york city. carved inside a national forest the village of taft frightened most anyone not used to humanity with all its raw appetites exposed. you could buy the basics, a woman, a man, a horse, a place at a card table, a fat steak for a dollar, a quarter of whisky for a $1.25. a bunk for 25 cents. one nearby shop advertised, quote, shoes, booze, and screws. [laughter] >> and they weren't talking about hardware. it was an easy place forrian outlaw to hide because everyone
in taft was camouflaged. a decent man would stand out like kackus on ice flow. people drifted in town by day and just as easily faded away at night never to be seen until a snow melted in spring. during one thaw eight bodies were found. a reporter visiting from chicago described the town of taft as, quote, the wickedest city in america. the townsfolk took their amusement wherever they could get it and so they didn't miss a beat when the church-going well-fed then secretary of war, william h. taft, came for a visit in 1907. at the time the town was nameless. just a sheltered place on the woods to get -- a place to get a bunk to sleep off a hard night. secretary taft who was on the short list to succeed roosevelt lectured the whores and the
store clerks and the card sharks about their ways. it was a de-5ans how american settlements dating back to the pilgrims city on a hill. people cheered, whiffled in approval and hoisted their jugs here here and after the future president left they decided to name their town for the big man. well, that spring there were 18 murders in taft. the town of taft was part of the public land domain of ellers koch 25-year-old supervisor of three national forests and a fresh-minted little g.p. pinchot never told him his empire would include some of the most openly lawless places in the country. pinchot always looked past the gambling dins and the mining claiming to the trees. quote, the forest is as beautiful as it is useful as he wrote on his primer on forestry. the old fairy-tale which spoke of it as a terrible place was wrong.
no one know the feeling of the gentle influence of one of the strongest parts of nature but he had not visited the open sore of taft, montana. when koch and his crew of young rangers came up in town to show up, the cribs, the dance halls were going full throttling. the bars were lined with hard faced dance hall girls and every kind of gambling was going wide open. the rangers spent the night because unable to sleep because of the din. koch got out of bed and dressed and went down to the saloon. he dropped a coin in a slot machine and it hit. as his winnings floated out painted women were drawn to the forest supervisor, quote, one big blonde in a very low cut dress had her arm tightly around my neck, koch wrote. he ordered up drinks for the house on him, of course, and then he gathered his coins, ducked under the arm of the blonde with the free flowing cleavage and made a retreat for his bunk. welcome, sir to the low, low national forest.
koch hired crews of seasonal rangers to go with his full-time assistants they strung telephone wire that first year, they built trails and rescued hunters and hikers. in the winter they snowshoe forest on little sugar, hard tack they felled trees for firewood and tried to stay warm wrapped in warm blankets years before anybody had a sleeping bag. koch learned how to read the sky and the human heart as well. now, his colleague just over the ridge in idaho had a bigger problem. for inside his national forest, there were three towns animated by debatchry and lusts of all kind. the worst was grand forks where muddy streets were thick with fifth and stumps of big cedars like nubs on a half shaven face. they were held together by rough cut planks with cribs out back. if a wagon broke down in the
middle of the street it remained there until somebody burned it or it was picked apart for scrap. the little g.p.s were horrified and perplexed in what they found in the people's land. instead of honest homesteaders they confronted land thieves. instead of pinchot's little man who would be king, they found whisky peddlers. instead of enlightened merchants they found six variety of pimps all operating in open defiance in the united states a state forest service. moon cut a swath and opened a bar with a few whores of taft. he did this under the eyes of several rangers. a plummoxed ranger send a telegram no idea how to respond. two undesirable prostitutes discovered on government land he wired. what should i do? a ranger wired back, get two desirable ones. [laughter]
>> so that's what they were up against. and i was so lucky when i was reading in california a few weeks ago a woman came up to me and told me she was the granddaughter of that ranger who sent that telegram and she presented me with a copy of that telegram. which was absolutely wonderful and it has a very important place that telegram in forest service lore and anytime i run into a ranger who has got a sense of the history i say get two desirable ones and they know exactly what i'm talking about. [laughter] >> sort of that was what they were up against. and, you know, to me, this was a fascinating social history because it was an experiment. now, people say -- somebody asked me today, who are they to come out and tell people how to live? well, they didn't really tell people how to live. but here's what they did that was different from other generations. pinchot had to study forestry in france because there was no forest school ith united states. -- in the united states. when he became a forester he
claims he was the first in the united states. he hung a shingle in the island of manhattan gifford pinchot, comma, forester. but there wasn't much beyond sparkle. he goes to france to study as a boy and he's appalled. all the land is held by these nobles. the peasants couldn't pick up twigs in the national forests. england was the same way. you had to have position of the lord of the manor for fishing, hiking. so what he did was so radical and different was to break from that. was to simply say this land belongs to you and i. it's no more complicated than that. so, you know, i grew up, you know, in spokane, and we had a big irish catholic family and we weren't rich. we didn't have a summer home but we had these public lands. and, you know, as long as we had these public lands i knew we were rich. and so we camped all over western montana. all over northern idaho, all over eastern washington.
and, you know, this land was something -- my mother always told me it was part of my birthright as an american citizen and so -- that's what we really owe this president. it's also interesting to think accidents, quirks of history -- what if this fire hadn't happened? the forest service had been killed and they were very close to killing it. don't fool yourself. they had basically defunded this down basically down to nothing. and how low the morale and people were quitting and they felt disrespected and unsupported in washington. they were very close, what if this fire hadn't happened? what if it hadn't changed the course of history? the national parks which you saw with the ken burns documentary, you know, are an important part of our heritage but a very small part of the public land domain. they are a fraction of what the forest service is. so that's why i feel absolutely in awe of roosevelt and pinchot himself who has, i think, gotten kind of a bad rap over the year,
he is always juxtaposed against john mire the third of the founding americans of the american conservation. well, let me say one thing for a minute here. mire was pinchot's. he lived with a goes like the love of his life died with pinchot was 28 and he couldn't accept her loss. so he claims the spirit appeared to him of his dead lover and he claims that he was sealed to her. this didn't come out until a few years ago. it was the best kept secret about pinchot's life. -- this is the top advisor of the president of the united states and he claimed he had his spirit wife with him many times when he was dining with roosevelt. he would read to this ghost at night. he would tell her about his day. he would run his speeches by her. so he's a very strange guy. you know, he used to sleep on a wooden pillow and he would wake up with his valet throwing cold water in his face when he would visit his rangers and they would
horseback up and great marksman he claimed he brought a deer down with a pistol but then as night settled pinchot would wander off into the dark and sleep by himself. john mire wrote in his diary, all slept in tent except for pinchot. it was a great mystery what he was up to. we know now only because of some scholarship done recently that he was communing with his dead wife. that he basically summoned her so many nights. now, mire was pinchot's men tore. -- mentor. i saw all the letters where pinchot say am i weird. and i go off by myself. mire was strange himself. he lash himself to a tree so he could feel with the force of the wind and sway with the branches. they were close in bringing the conservation dream to the united states for almost 20 years and they broke over one i thing the damning of the river in the yosemite.
it was really late in their career and i should say it didn't happen -- when that yosemite was dammed it did not happen on roosevelt's watch. it was woodrow wilson, the following president who did it. so it wasn't even pinchot who did it but they disagreed and pinchot because san francisco just had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1906 and they felt they needed the water to rebuild, he felt sorry for san francisco. but you can read pinchot's diaries and by the way, he was roosevelt's top speechwriter. so most of the speeches that roosevelt gave came from the pen of pinchot. if you read those speeches and diaries that this man was committed to the american wild as mire ever was but he lost his place in history. so thank you and i'll take a few questions from you all. [applause] >> you have to live up to
missoula's reputation of being inquisitive? >> how did you research this book? >> the question was how did i research this book. >> it was glorious research and i spent in the archives where they have a fabulous record of this fire. it was very well photographed by the way afterward. and, you know, i covered mount st. helens, the eruption of it. it was eery to look at all these photographs from all the downed timber from the eruption of st. helens and it was because of those winds. those 70 miles an hour winds that came -- essentially blew down so much of the forest so i spent a lot of time here in montana researching the archives here. a lot of time in all the forest districts around where the fire happened because the forest service did a marvelous thing. they kept these records called early memories of the forest service. early days, thank you, i'm glad you're here again.
early days of the forest service and i would go into one of the forest districts and ask them for early days and someone would have a stapled bound or recommendation recollection of the early days. i spent a lot of times in the national archives in d.c. and that was to research roosevelt and pinchot and look at their diaries. and fourth, this was very well documented. it was the first time that we had really reported on a fire. i mean, it was front page news not just here in the missoulan. someone who had my job reported on this fire and it was page one news like i said. you know, what i do is i go and find a nugget of gold. that's great about research and you'll be going through and something just pops and you see this marvelous passage that illuminates a character for you also i mentioned a woman named pinky adair. they called her pinky 'cause she
had this red hair. and she was trying to establish a homestead on the national forest illegally but if you could prove that the ground was arable, that was one of the prisms of the national homestead if you could prove it was farmable land. it wasn't. but she's up there and she get drafted to be a cook and a cook for convicts because one of the things they did that was very controversial here in missoula, they opened up the jails. they let people out of jail. they did this in wallace, idaho. they established marshall law to control people. they were so desperate for men one of the headlines in the missoulans was men, men, men exclamation point. they were grabbing hobos down on front street as they called them. and pinky adair is drafted to be a cook for these 80 convicts up
in the national forest and she shows him a pistol and someone said do you know how to use that. put a can of beans on that stump and she takes out her pistol and pops, hits it dead aim and it quieted them. so she had a fabulous experience. and she really described it as fabulous with these convicts whom she cooked for and she escapes the burn. when the firestorm happens, they dive into the stream. this is what a lot of -- they were so helpless and they dive in this shallow stream hoping it would hopscotch over them. a lot of people went spoke caves and that didn't work because this fire, you know, it's a storm. it's seeking oxygen. it literally sucked the air out of the caves and that's why some people died even though they're in caves. all these convicts and pinky adair they're in this stream trying to survive the firestorm and she get up in the middle of it saying i won't die here. she said what are you doing, you're crazy. she walks 20 miles down to the town of adair, which is on the st. joe river, i believe, and
she has this marvelous tale of her living through it. she outlives everyone. every major player in this drama, big and small, and in her 90s, some wonderful person, i don't know who, i forget, from the idaho historical society goes and sits down with pinky adair in her nursing home and sits for two days with her and she tells these marvelous stories. it was the greatest time in my life. although she said later she could never eat a potato afterward because she'd cooked so many potatoes. i found this pinky adair oral history sort of, you know -- it hadn't been in any of the big burn stories. and it was just one of the things going from town to town looking for things. that's the great thing when you do what you do. occasionally you find these bits of gold. so that's how the research is done. and i always look for -- i did this with the dust bowl book, too. i look for, you know -- there's two ways to look at history. there's the great man theory where history is looked at
through the presidents and the people who build the railroads and the people who started the bank and the people who, you know, founded the town. and that's fine. and i certainly do that with roosevelt. but then there's the people whose stories never get told. who live at the edges. and that's what i tried to the with the dust bowl book was tell the story of people who lived through a time when the earth itself rose up. and looked like a mountain range coming upon it. that's where you get the texture of history. that's where you get -- what did it smell like, what did it look like. what did you think on the day the earth came towards you? so i was looking for about four or five people who could carry this story for me. so the way i research is i go through and i go through, and boom, i find somebody -- it's not people. it's more of a drawn-out process. i can't think of a word. i find someone who has a story arc so ellers koch whom some of may know who wrote a fabulous book "40 years of a forester" and it wasn't published after his death.fsxñ
he has a wonderful tale to tell. living through the fire and having did you get what became of his beloved forest service. i look for people who could carry this story. and people who aren't often in history. yes, sir. >> i shouldn't critique a book before i read it. but i am so pleased that somebody wrote a book about the 1910 fire. when it first het, oh, my lord, just another one of them things but i'm so pleased to see you. you're putting somebody to the beginnings and the aftermath and the implications of it. i do have one thing and i shouldn't say that before i read it, and then the source of the fires. the common feeling around here for ever since i remember was that the railroads were building
roads, all kinds of slash for the railroads, slash, so many people were getting stump ranches and then trying to clear out the land and all those little fires burned into bigger ones and it went into bigger ones yet. >> right. >> but more than just -- there may have been some lightning strikes, too i don't know. that's contrary to my way of thinking. but i better read the book. [laughter] >> thank you, sir. i brought him there tonight and put him there. i appreciate what you said even though you hadn't read it and you liked it. that's the best kind of reader, i guess. he's absolutely right. and i forgot to mention that. my apologies. in the official reports what caused the big burn, they said lightning strikes caused many of the fires but they thought perhaps half of the fires were started by the railroads themselves. the sparks that came off the trains and they would send these people to go to try to go out and put out these fires on either side of the tracks. there's also -- and so that started many of these little fires.
and they just -- these trains would come roaring through. it was the milwaukee road the most expensive transcontinental a date $10,000 a mile so they could bring silk back to chicago. that was rockefeller money in that railroad and that's why there's all these people living in taft because of that railroad but those sparks caused many of those fires. now, you'll look in the book and you'll see some pictures. there were these huge tressels they built not just all these tunnels through the bitter roots but these huge timbered tressels and when the fire was happening on saturday night, august 20th, 1910, a lot of people fled by train. it was like the scene in the titanic in wallace, idaho. women and children only. the whole town was being evacuated and they said men had to stay behind and fight for their homes but the women and children could leave on the last train out of town. well, that last train out of town wasn't necessarily going to get you to missoula because all
these tressels were burning as well. so there's these harrowing accounts of the train essentially going up to the edge and then sending someone out to see if the fire was burning a tressel and nudging another mile but many of these tressels burned down and collapsed of this engineering feat being tossed around for this big burn as well. but thank you for bringing that up. yes, sir. >> can you talk about one of your other books just for a minute? >> sure. >> "breaking blue." you were born and raised in spokane and you told this horrible story. how did you get into that? >> well, he asked about "breaking blue." actually, i wasn't -- i was born in seattle but raised in spokane so i like to point that out. i got a little bit of both in my blood here. it was a story of the oldest homicide ever solved in american history. and it was solved by a sheriff in north idaho who found the bad
guy, the killer who was corrupt in the 1930s. you won't believe this but they were killing people over bootlegged butter. that was their racket in the 1930s and somebody got onto it and they killed a night watchmen over this bootleg butter and they found him where he had been a judge and had a pretty prosperous man. and tony caught up with him in the eve of his death. the guy died shortly thereafter. and i was -- you know, i've been with the "new york times" for 20 years and it was one of those "times" stories i did. and i was roaming the west looking for these stories. someone say you're a historian, congressman pat williams who's with me i'm a historian. thank you, congressman, but i'm not worthy of that designation. i'm a storiy material. and i heard this story. he found the murder weapon buried -- it was thrown off the
bridge in the spokane river and when the river was drained the lowest it had ever do some dam repair, they had found the gun that was used in the killing 54 years later. it was a great story. i was fascinated by the sheriff. so, yes, congressman williams. [laughter] >> i just wanted to wait until i heard almost everybody had asked you a question. but thank you. i'm wondering, tim, about your impression from particularly your last two books and the latest one about the fire, you've not only lived in but it circulated around the midwest for that book and your home up here in the northern rockies for
your fire book, and you wrote wonderfully and extensively about the citizens in the states affected by the dust bowl as well as the state or states affected by the big burn. after you finished the books and now consider them, what are your impressions of the differences, if any, between the resolve and the competency of midwesters in the midst of their terror and northern -- the people of the northern rockies in the midst of their terror? >> boy, that's a really tough question 'cause you're forcing me to say something bad about your people here. [laughter] >> go right ahead.
>> i'll just tell you what the record shows, okay, so this doesn't call necessarily on me to have an opinion but this is what the record shows. i don't think there were any tougher americans than those who lived through the dust bowl because these people saw the utter -- worst environmental catastrophe ever rated by american historians 10 years of hell. these are people -- some of them lived in earth and floored sod-roofed houses. there was no social. -- social security. there's 25% unemployment. some are eating road kill and the sheriff would come back, drop the road killer and people would go get it for their dinner that night. there's a town that sent a telegram saying entire town starving, there's no food stamps and they were tough. people are dying left and right and they are being thrown one punch after another. someone said it was the hell of all nature. that was the quote. they're losing their farms. this one piece of dirt that they finally have it's blown up and
thrown to the sky. and you could have a bright summer day at noon and it would be as dark as someone once said like two midnights and a jug. one of those great expressions you can only get when you find these boys. i came away from that story full of admiration for their toughness and their resilience and by the way, these people are with us still. they're in their 90s right now. they haven't left the planet yet. and that's the great thing about them. i can look into their eyes when i was doing that story, and say tell me what it was like to be 17 years old in 1929. and they would tell a story. so, you know, i hugely admire those people. now, by contrast, what the record showed in taft, montana, as the firestorm was approaching, i don't know any of you who have read the book yet but citizens of taft, as the from us service was trying to save them, decided they were going to open up all their whisky reserves and drink themselves to death. [laughter] >> that is exactly what they did.
[laughter] >> i swear to god. that's in the from us service record. -- forest service record. if they were going to go down, damn it, they were going to go down drunk. and the from us service contemplated, and this is in the record as well, you know, they were starting backfires to save themselves. why don't we start one towards the town. they considered burning the town itself and say, hell wi. as it turned out, the forest service rescued everyone in taft, got these drunks on a train, got them out of there and only one person died and that person was draped in bandages when he came down, just outside of taft and his buddy went up -- and he was in a train car and he'd been drinking, of course, and the whisky was all over had bandages and his buddy went take a look at him and he lit a match to look at him and he caught fire. the guy caught fire and burned. that was the only death out of
taft. so by comparison to taft, i would say to the dust bowl people, the record shows itself. anyway, i've got to sign books. thank you all for coming tonight. it's a wonderful evening. [applause] >> timothy egan shared the 2001 pulitzer prize for a series he cowrote in the "new york times" about race in america. he's the author of "the worst hard time: the untold story of those who survived the great american dust bowl" which was awarded the 2006 national book award for nonfiction. he currently writes a weekly column entitled "outpost" for the "new york times." for more information on timothy egan and to read his weekly column visit egan.blogsnytimes.com. . ..