Timothy Egan was faced with what he called a “happy problem” following his 2005 best-selling Dust Bowl history, “The Worst Hard Time.”
How do you top a National Book Award winner?
“You worry about what to do next,” said Egan, by phone from his Seattle office.
He solved that problem by diving into one of the most dramatic stories in Inland Northwest history: the 1910 fires in North Idaho and Montana.
This story of death, devastation, cowardice and courage had always been in the back of his mind. Egan grew up in Spokane and camped and fished in those Idaho and Montana forests, so he knew the essence of the story:
•Three million acres of forest burned.
•Nearly a hundred people died.
•Wallace and four other towns were reduced to smoldering ruins.
But an “amazing” back story – involving one of the outsized characters of American history, Teddy Roosevelt – is what pushed this story to the top of Egan’s project list.
The result is “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire That Saved America” ($27, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), now at area bookstores.
Egan discovered that a series of events around 1909 and 1910 – including the construction of the Milwaukee Road and a devastating summer drought – had combined to make the Bitterroot Crest and valley of the St. Joe River into ground zero in a conflict that transcended the fire.
Gilded Age land barons were pitted against “Teddy’s green rangers,” the college-educated forest rangers, in a struggle for the existence of the fledgling conservation movement and the entire concept of public land.
“You can say, objectively, that a huge part of American history during the first 10 years of the last century coursed through that pretty, narrow part of where you guys live,” said Egan.
Egan, “always a huge fan of Roosevelt’s,” become even more of an admirer as he researched the origins of Roosevelt’s “huge, radical idea: conservation.”
The back story is, essentially, about the creation of the Forest Service and the precariousness of its political position leading up to the fires. The Big Burn threatened to kill Roosevelt’s radical conservation experiment after only five years.
“You look for these things, the linchpins of history,” said Egan. “It’s easy to do in hindsight.
“But the fire clearly changed the perception of the Forest Service. The rangers were thought to be sissified, to use an old-fashioned term.”
Then about 100 rangers and firefighters died, protecting the people who had once hooted derisively at them. Suddenly, the rangers were heroes. The name of one ranger, Ed Pulaski, has become legendary even among today’s forest firefighters.
Egan also became fascinated by another outsized character: Gifford Pinchot, the aristocratic father of the Forest Service.
“Pinchot gets shortchanged by history, but Roosevelt said that Pinchot was his conscience, and no man did more for his administration,” said Egan. “But he just gets this asterisk in history.”
When he started his research, Egan fully expected that Pinchot deserved only an asterisk in this story, too. But he discovered that Pinchot was as fascinating as Roosevelt himself.
“It helped that Pinchot kept voluminous diaries – there was no thought he didn’t record,” said Egan. “He was quite a conflicted person – he thought he could do better, was troubled by his own inadequacies. A strange guy. …
“And this secret life of his, I found utterly fascinating and character-forming.”
As Egan discovered, Pinchot carried on beautiful, intimate conversations for years with his fiancé, Laura Houghteling.
The only problem was, Laura was not alive. She had died during the engagement, yet she often “appeared” to him, séance-style, for many years afterward.
“My Lady has told me beautiful things,” was a typical entry in Pinchot’s journal.
“The Big Burn” is similar to Egan’s award-winning “The Worst Hard Time” in that it tells a true Western story with nearly novel-like drama. Yet for Egan, the differences were stark.
When Egan wrote the Dust Bowl book, he often felt like he had “landed on Mars” when he visited dusty Oklahoma and Texas.
“It was so different from what I was used to,” he said. “I’m a third-generation Northwesterner.”
Egan felt much more at home roaming through the Silver Valley, the Bitterroot Crest and especially the St. Joe River. His two brothers had once taken him fishing in the upper St. Joe and he had never forgotten it.
“I’ve climbed most of the major peaks in the Northwest,” he said. “Last year, I climbed Half Dome. I’ve done Kilimanjaro and rafted most of the major rivers of the West.
“But I considered those first few days where I got to know the upper reaches of the St. Joe to be among the most glorious outdoor experiences of my life.”
Knowing the land’s history makes that experience even richer – and Egan hopes his book will also enrich the experiences of, for instance, all of those mountain bikers along the Route of the Hiawatha, which follows the old Milwaukee Road route and cuts right through the center of the old Big Burn area.
In the book, you’ll learn that Taft, Mont., was once dubbed “the wickedest city in America” and had a higher murder rate than New York City. Today, nothing remains except the name on the I-90 freeway exit.
You’ll learn that Grand Forks, Idaho, was nearly as wicked as Taft, and even more thoroughly expunged from the earth. You’ll learn that Avery, Idaho, was named for a Rockefeller grandson and once boasted mansions.
Yet despite the wealth of historical details in his books, Egan still claims he is “not a historian by trade.” He thinks of historians as people with Ph.D.s.
“I consider myself a storyteller,” he said. “I try to find a really good story at its core, and then hang all of these historical ornaments on it. But at the core, it’s a really terrific story.”
He sandwiches all of his research and writing around his day job as the “Outposts” columnist at The New York Times. It’s an opinion column that runs once a week online, and a dozen or so times a year in print.
The job gives him a lot of freedom to “travel around the West and write about things that catch my eye.”
Egan is on his way to Coeur d’Alene this week for an event that he calls “totally serendipitous.”
He’ll be delivering the Northern Idaho Distinguished Humanities Lecture on Thursday at the Coeur d’Alene Resort. When he signed up for this lecture, he didn’t know that his book would be coming out at the same time.
“It turns out, this will be the first time I’ll be publicly speaking about the book,” said Egan. “And the great thing is, I’ll be speaking about it at the place where the fire happened.”