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Plains Folk

The Northern Passage


The life and works of Theodore Roosevelt, which North Dakotans are determined to memorialize in Medora, are not without their ironies. Although generally remembered as a man of action, the vigorous life and all that, Roosevelt was indubitably a man of letters, the author of monumental works including the multi-volume Winning of the West.


As an author, TR’s model was Francis Parkman, whose own multiple volumes celebrated the “struggle in the wilderness” that determined the fate of North America. Parkman, like TR but a generation earlier, came west for adventure as well as knowledge. “Here society is reduced to its original elements,” Parkman declares (although in my mind I hear the words in Roosevelt’s tenor), “the whole fabric of art and conventionality is struck rudely to pieces, and men find themselves suddenly brought back to the wants and resources of their original natures.”


Parkman and Roosevelt alike, too, understood the significance of passages, personal and physical. Parkman marked the passage by which Anglo-American humanity punched through to the wilderness at South Pass. For Roosevelt a generation later, that passage was the Northern Pacific Railroad Bridge spanning the Missouri River at Bismarck.


Without which, nothing, or not much anyway. Without the NP bridge, no capital at Bismarck, possibly no state of North Dakota. No open-range cattle industry on the northern plains. No President Theodore Roosevelt, since he himself declared that if not for his experience here, he never would have been president.


The historian Lounsberry dates the beginning of ranching in the Badlands to 1881 with the importation of 200 eastern cattle and the establishment by Wadsworth and Hawley of the Maltese Cross--the outfit they soon would sell to Roosevelt. I presume these were Shorthorns and that they crossed the Missouri River on the ice, or by rail on the ice-bridge at Bismarck. Longhorns were regarded as inferior by this time; eastern cattle, and eastern connections, were required. Which materialized with completion of the NP bridge in October 1882. Cattle, blooded cattle, sometimes called “states cattle,” poured across, and with them, cattlemen with pedigrees of their own.


Roosevelt, with his hunting expedition of 1883--made possible by the bridge, since he arrived by the NP railroad--illustrates the connection between the tourist industry (also established by virtue of bridge completion in 1882) and the cattle business. He was preceded by a few months by the Marquis de Mores.


We know much of the early activities of these fellows through reports published in the Bad Lands Cow Boy, the editor of which, Arthur T. Packard, was able to bring a printing press to Medora because the NP had bridged the Missouri. In the Cow Boy I read, for instance, of Roosevelt’s receipt of “fifteen hundred head of states yearlings and two’s for his Elkhorn and Chimney Butte ranches” in May 1885. Issue after issue, too, displays the placement of registered brands on drawings of cattle that are definitely not Longhorns.


Roosevelt arrived too late to observe the astonishing construction techniques deployed by the engineer who built the bridge, George Shattuck Morison. These have been documented in fascinating fashion for North Dakota History by the geologist, Edward C. Murphy. We do not know whether Roosevelt learned about Morison’s work in the 1880s, but we do know--by virtue of the research of Curt Eriksmoen--that Morison went on to become the most distinguished bridge-builder in America--and that it was he, with his work on the Panama Canal commission, who convinced Roosevelt to build the canal in Panama.


Roosevelt loved technology, and he loved antiquities, and he believed in bold executive action. The Northern Pacific bridge at Bismarck needs a Teddy Roosevelt today. Where will we find one?

-Tom Isern

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