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Bully for Antiquities


Everyone says they are zoomed out on videoconferencing, but there can be good experiences with it. Recently it was my pleasure to spend a virtual afternoon with a cadre of bright architecture students who are working on projects related to the proposed Theodore Roosevelt library in Medora. My job was to familiarize them with the historic context of the area--the Battle of the Badlands, the open-range cattle industry, and of course, Theodore Roosevelt’s Badlands experience, including his resulting penchant for conservation.


Also included were some episodes that were less savory, such as TR’s tendency to be full of himself and his contempt for the first peoples of the land. My general assessment was, TR was an American hero, but don’t try to make him into a saint.


Although we come pretty close to that here in North Dakota. Our highest state award for a citizen is the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award. Interestingly, in its explanation of the award, the office of the governor notes, “Roosevelt vigorously championed the conservation of America's scenic, natural and historical resources.”


As the scholar Francis P. McMannon has chronicled, TR was a proponent of the Antiquities Act of 1906, in fact, “was instrumental in enacting this statute.” He signed the act, after which he used it “actively and effectively.”


Archeologists, curators, and informed citizens got concerned about the preservation of antiquities in the nineteenth century out of particular concern for archeological sites in the Southwest, which were being plundered by profiteers. The preservation movement soon broadened to encompass historic structures and historic sites, in particular, Civil War battlefields.


A prominent voice of preservationist concern was that of Francis Parkman, the American historian--who was a literary hero to Roosevelt, himself the author of a four-volume epic, The Winning of the West. Roosevelt supported congressional developments toward passing an antiquities act, and an episode in 1903 crystallized his thoughts.


In the course of a western tour that year, TR paid a visit to the Grand Canyon and, perched on its South Rim, gave a speech. He exhorted the people of Arizona “to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is,” and he praised the Santa Fe Railroad for not building its hotel on the very rim of the canyon and thus bespoiling it. Unfortunately, other capitalists were less restrained; one projected a trolley line topping the South Rim. This was why in 1908, Roosevelt used the presidential power conferred on him by the Antiquities Act to declare the Grand Canyon a National Monument. The situation called for decisive executive action.


Roosevelt created quite a few national monuments, the first one being Devils Tower, in 1906. Which brings us back pretty close to the Badlands, the hearth of TR’s conservationist impulses.


And it prompts from me the question--always a good one to ask, when faced with a matter of conservation--the question, “What would Teddy do?” I mean, what would Teddy, the admirer of Francis Parkman, the historian of the American West, the ardent exponent of the Antiquities Act--do about the current situation in North Dakota, as the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company--a lineal descendant of the Santa Fe Railroad, which TR praised in 1903--contemplates, indeed chafes for, the demolition of one of our most salient and significant historic structures: the Northern Pacific Railroad Bridge over the Missouri River, a bridge our state department of tourism has adjudged “iconic.” Had there been no such bridge completed in 1882, there would have been no Roosevelt in the Badlands in 1883.


I think I know the answer to my question.


-Tom Isern