September 14, 1901, 2:15 in the morning. As the gravely wounded President William McKinley succumbed to gangrene, the presidential succession was on hold. Constitutionally, the United States did have a new President, ready, as the youngest ever to assume office, to further usher the country into a new and climactic century. And yet, at the advent of his life-defining role, the new President was recklessly barreling down hazardous backcountry roads at breakneck speeds, through darkness and driving rain, in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks. He knew neither of his predecessor’s fate nor of his own destiny, but knew he had to reach the train station in North Creek, New York. Only a few hours ago, he had been missing, hundreds of miles away from the dying President on the slopes of New York’s highest peak, Mount Marcy. It was here that the Rough Rider began his life-defining role of President of the United States as the Midnight Rider.
Vice President Theodore Roosevelt’s wild midnight ride to the Oval Office was set in motion with an assassin’s bullet, an eerily trending catalyst of change in the preceding and succeeding decades. On September 6, 1901, while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, President McKinley was shot twice by Leon Czolgosz, a self-proclaimed anarchist.
Upon learning of the tragic developments, Roosevelt hastily scampered 400 miles from a speaking engagement at Isle La Motte in the middle of Lake Champlain to Buffalo, to be by the President. This journey alone, especially given the melancholic impetus and 1901 standards of travel, might have exhausted any other Vice President beyond functional capability. For Roosevelt, however, these were the strenuous circumstances he longed for and thrived in. This was just the beginning of a precarious trek that culminated in his formal accession to the presidency, and arguably, crafted an early romantic mandate for his progressive and virile presidency.
In the days following Roosevelt’s arrival in Buffalo, optimism among the doctors operating on McKinley grew after a surgical operation was completed and the President’s condition seemingly improved. Assured that the President might survive after all from his wounds, Roosevelt shuttled up to the Adirondacks in a gesture of good faith to the American public. On September 10, he journeyed across the Hudson River to the wild and rugged High Peaks region to join his vacationing family at the Tahawus Club, roughly 35 miles of countless lakes, peaks and valleys north of the town of North Creek.
Ever the restless adventurer and perhaps as a way to relieve anxiety, Roosevelt rallied his family to climb Mt. Marcy with the assistance of his trusted guide Noah LaCasse on September 12. When the weather began to deteriorate the next day, Roosevelt’s wife Edith and the children returned to the Tahawus Club, while the Vice President and a small group led by LaCasse pressed onwards and upwards to the summit of Mt. Marcy, increasingly engulfed by ominous rainclouds.
Meanwhile in Buffalo, McKinley’s condition suddenly took a turn for the worse. Consternation immediately grew over the need to once again summon the Vice President. William Loeb, Roosevelt’s private secretary, had stayed in Albany to keep an open line of communication during his chief’s Adirondack retreat. Nevertheless, at this time of need, the President-to-be was effectively off the grid. After receiving telegrams regarding McKinley’s weakening status, Loeb traveled to the terminus of the Adirondack railway in North Creek with a special Delaware & Hudson Company train that would await Roosevelt’s arrival. He telephoned the Tahawus Club, the very end of the telephone line, and pronounced one of the telegrams intended for Roosevelt, “The President appears to be dying and members of the Cabinet in Buffalo think you should lose no time coming.” Thus began the wild goose chase for the Vice President on Friday the 13th.
The Tahawus Club foreman, David Hunter, dispatched local guide Harrison Hall and a search party of mountaineers with the burden of delivering the summons to Roosevelt. Finding the Vice President in the steep and vast wilderness of the Mt. Marcy summit would be a daunting task. Hours passed as the team desperately called out in vain and fired interval rifle shots into the air. As the afternoon light began its tuck past the horizon, Roosevelt’s party finally heard the shots in the distance and it occurred to him that it was a signal. He purportedly fired his own gun in response. The party descended the summit to Lake Tear of the Clouds, when just on the cusp of nightfall they finally saw a specter emerging from the brush. It was Hall. “I felt at once that he had bad news and, sure enough, he handed me a telegram saying that the President’s condition was much worse and that I must come to Buffalo immediately,” Roosevelt later recalled.
Just before midnight, Roosevelt’s ascension to his presidency and legacy began with his descent down from the Tahawus Club. Over the next five hours and 35 miles, in sheer darkness on muddy and dubious roads, Roosevelt would endure a relay series of three horse-drawn buckboard wagon rides through some of the most rugged terrain on the East Coast. Somewhere between Tahawus and Aiden Lair Lodge in Minerva, New York, Roosevelt would become the 26th President of the United States.
Roosevelt clung to the seat as the carriage bumped and buckled down the narrow and winding cliff-side roads. The feeble buckboard wheels agonizingly creaked, close to giving way at a moment’s notice. The rapid pace of the horses threatened to toss the riders headlong into steep ravines. “Go on!” Roosevelt repeatedly cried into the impenetrable darkness in the face of peril. After 3:00AM, he would reach the Aiden Lair Lodge, where the proprietor Mike Cronin waited for his turn to chauffeur the president-in-waiting to his destiny. He would take the reins from Orin Kellogg, who had safely piloted Roosevelt nine miles from the town of Tahawus. The Aiden Lair pit stop, like the others of the journey, would be brief as the nervous navigators naturally felt hurried by the determined and unstoppable gale force sitting in their passenger seat.
Though Cronin was an expert driver, the circuitous, dark and increasingly washed out roads caused one of his horses to stumble, slowing the caravan. The slightest mishap could spell undoubted catastrophe. Roosevelt barked “Oh, that doesn’t matter! Push ahead!” In another instance of hesitation by Cronin, Roosevelt allayed, “If you are not afraid, I am not. Push ahead!” Cronin heeded the charge. The tandem would complete their sixteen mile overnight roller-coaster ride through weather-battered wilderness in about three hours, less than half the time of an equivalent daytime ride. Arriving at the North Creek railhead at about 4:46AM, the Rough Rider would finally receive the news that McKinley was dead. Without knowing it, Roosevelt’s return to civilization thus marked his first official act as President of the United States.
Roosevelt swiftly boarded the Delaware and Hudson special to Albany. He then switched to another special train to Buffalo, arriving at 1:34PM on September 14. Still in his muddied outdoors clothing, Roosevelt journeyed to his friend Ansley Wilcox’s house to change. About an hour later a modest swearing-in ceremony began at the Wilcox house and at 3:30PM, Theodore Roosevelt was officially sworn in.
The humility of his inauguration was juxtaposed by his dramatic entrance onto the inaugural stage. After a virtually sleepless twenty-one hour journey of 500 miles by foot, horse, and train across the entirety of New York State, there would be no moment of rest for Roosevelt. He had the job of his lifetime now and in his own fashioned way, had literally hit the ground running.
The romantic portrait of Roosevelt’s midnight ride may not have the same iconic status of Paul Revere’s midnight ride in American history, but given the circumstances and the context of the time, the story deserves every bit of notoriety. First ascended in 1837, sixty-four years later the 5,344 foot Mt. Marcy was still a wilderness, void of many of the established trails a hiker would have the luxury of traversing today. This was unquestionably a reckless journey in which the Vice President easily could have died in the Adirondack wilderness.
Why did Roosevelt place himself in such a dangerous position? In today’s age of Secret Service protection, cell phones, and GPS, it is unfathomable to even imagine a situation, where, in a moment of presidential succession no less, the Vice President was effectively missing. Moreover, a Vice President today would never even be allowed to attempt a ride like Roosevelt’s not only for security reasons, but also because of the nature of our times of comfort and ease. Roosevelt’s midnight Adirondack ride thus helps us further understand his restless pursuit of a strenuous life, for himself and for his country. Deeply motivated by his fury at the assassin’s terrorism of honorable representative government, perhaps he risked his own life to ensure the continuance of American endurance. He knew that as the United States was becoming a world power, he must exude strength and virility in leadership, especially amidst a weakening President of the “old Guard.”
Like Washington crossing the Delaware, Jefferson presenting the Declaration of Independence, or Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s midnight ride down his home state’s geographic pinnacle to the pinnacle of American power should be considered a seminal moment in understanding the man, his presidency, and his era. It is only speculation to find purposeful intent in his dramatic entrance to the presidency, but this perilous exhibition of strength through a great wilderness was certainly a foreshadowing of the new modern presidency for a new American century that Roosevelt would mold.
His sculpted likeness in the Dakota Black Hills incarnates the memory of the impressive presidential legacy he would leave. But before there could be Mt. Rushmore, there was Mt. Marcy, where Roosevelt manifested his folk hero image to set the tone for twentieth-century America. Paul Revere’s iconic midnight ride was a rallying call of the American Revolution, but it was Roosevelt’s “midnight ride to the presidency” down the treacherous slopes of New York’s highest peak that symbolically announced America’s 20th century ascendance as a world power. This story deserves its shroud of legend, for its microcosmic characterization of Theodore Roosevelt during his momentous ascendance.
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Theodore Roosevelt, “The Strenuous Life” (speech, the Hamilton Club, Chicago, IL, April 10, 1899).
Weber, Sandra. Mount Marcy: The High Peak of New York (Purple Mountain Press, 2001).