From the Fall 1991 issue of "The Columns"

Trail to the Presidency

By Doris Ursitti
Assistant Curator

On Friday, September 7, 1901, banner headlines of extra editions of Buffalo’s newspapers shouted "McKinley Shot!" These awful words reached Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt at Isle LaMotte, Lake Champlain where he was a guest of the Vermont Fish and Game Club. He immediately made his way to Buffalo.

Ansley Wilcox later wrote, "...I met him on Saturday noon (Sept. 7)...and a brief conversation resulted in his coming to stay at my house...until the following Tuesday (Sept. 10). At that point signs were very encouraging and it was thought that President McKinley would recover from his wounds."...it was thought best that the Vice-President should go away in order to impress the public with that confidence..." Leaving his itinerary with Ansley Wilcox in case he should be needed, Vice-President Roosevelt left Buffalo to join his family vacation in the Adirondacks at the Tahawus Club.

In the early morning hours of Friday, September 13, Mr. Wilcox was aroused by a messenger with the news of President McKinley’s worsening condition and was advised to contact and send for the Vice-President. A telephone call was made to Roosevelt’s Secretary William Loeb, who had remained in Albany in case of such a turn of events. Receiving the message Loeb immediately arranged for a special train and by 8:00 a.m. that morning (Fri. Sept.13), he was in North Creek ready to escort Theodore Roosevelt back to Buffalo. Meanwhile, Loeb telephoned this message from the President’s cabinet to Tahawus Post Office, the end of the telephone line:

Hon. T. Roosevelt

The President appears to be dying and members of the cabinet in Buffalo think you should lose no time in coming.

Elihu Root

A messenger sent by wagon to the Tahawus Club, nine miles away, arrived only to find that Roosevelt was hiking. Another messenger traveled over a steep, wet and slippery trail met Roosevelt three hours and ten minutes later, at 2:00 p.m., on the trail on Mt. Marcy where the hikers stopped for lunch. Roosevelt received the message, read it, and saying nothing finished his lunch. The party resumed their trek down the mountain arriving at the Clubhouse at 5:15 p.m. Roosevelt did not immediately prepare to leave. He remarked to his wife, " I’m not going unless I am really needed. I have been there once and that shows how I feel. But I will not go to stand beside those people who are suffering and anxious. I’m going to wait here." At approximately 10:00 a message came that President McKinley was dying and Roosevelt prepared to leave immediately.

All Friday morning and afternoon, William Loeb, was making arrangements to bring Theodore Roosevelt from the Tahawus Club to the train Station at North Creek, a trip that was to be accomplished in 3 stages over a 35-mile trail which had been made treacherous by three days of rain.

Roosevelt left the Tahawus Club at 10:30 p.m. Friday, September 13, and traveled by wagon the ten miles to Tahawus post office in two hours. He stopped long enough to contact Loeb in Albany by telephone and drink a cup of coffee. Ten minutes later the journey resumed and the next 9 miles to Aiden Lair were covered in 2 hours and 20 minutes.

At 3:00 a.m. on Saturday, Roosevelt arrived at Aiden Lair and the final relay began. The last 16 miles covered the roughest part of the country so far. There was a misty rain which made the road very slippery and the night "perfectly black." The driver had been put on notice to be ready to leave at anytime since Friday at noon. While waiting in the early morning hours of Sat. Sept. 14, he received a telephone call from Loeb who told him that President McKinley had died in Buffalo at 2:15 a.m. He decided not to tell Roosevelt, feeling that it was not really his place to relay such an important message and further, he did not want to add to his anxiety.

Dawn was breaking at North Creek as the ride ended 1 hour and 41 minutes later (a record for that road which was never broken) and the new President hurried to the special train which had been waiting since the first message had been received. By 5:00 a.m. the train was steaming off to Buffalo bearing the 26th President of the U.S.

President Roosevelt arrived at the Terrace Station at about 1:30 p.m. No preparations had been made for the swearing in and after dismissing as inappropriate the suggestion that it take place in the Milburn home where McKinley’s body lay, he was brought to the Wilcox home. Immediately upon his arrival he changed from his traveling clothes to more appropriate dress which he borrowed. He then made known his wish to pay his respects to the President’s widow as a private citizen, thereby postponing the oath taking until this was accomplished.

Roosevelt returned to 641 Delaware by 3:00 p.m. "...and almost without announcement, the members of the cabinet came down to administer the oath of office."

President Roosevelt remained at the Wilcox home through Sunday, September 15, a day devoted to local funeral ceremonies including the laying-in-state- of the body of President McKinley at City Hall (now "Old County Hall"). Early the next day, Monday, September 16, 1901, he departed with the funeral train for Washington, D.C.

Sources:

  1. Docent Manual; "Theodore Roosevelt, President" written by Ansley Wilcox; Pg. 10-14: Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.
  2. Theodore Roosevelt’s night Ride to the Presidency by Eloise Cronin Murphy; Adirondack, Museum, Blue Mountain Lake, New York; 1977. 

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