Tony Vagneur: Roosevelt’s affinity for Colorado made a lasting legacy

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

A few years ago, as a friend and I prepared to ride the bike trail in Glenwood Canyon, we spied a mama bear and her cub slowly sauntering in the direction of the trail, and there was the thought that our paths might cross. Unperturbed, she turned northwest a bit and went around the hill behind the Yampa Spa. Piece of cake, although it brought to mind the Hotel Colorado, Teddy Roosevelt, and bears. All three go together like a written tercet in a musical score or, more commonly, three identical children born to the same mother on the same day.

Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th president of the U.S. had a fascination not only for Colorado, but for the Dakotas, having owned a couple of cattle ranches up there. It may have been the beauty of Colorado that bought Roosevelt’s allegiance, although the hunting wasn’t bad, either.

Born in 1858, Roosevelt was a sickly child, tormented by suffocating asthma attacks, until on a hiking trip in Switzerland with his family, he realized the benefits of clean air and outdoor exercise on his asthma. Thus, began a serious regimen of physical exercise that changed him into what we would call today an “outdoorsman.”

In 1883, Roosevelt first left the more sissified life of New York City and ventured to North Dakota, where the open vistas and rugged life of the ranchers convinced him to invest in two cattle ranches, the Chimney Butte and the Elkhorn, both on the Little Missouri (my immediate family’s ranch on Woody Creek was named the Elkhorn). It was at this time that Roosevelt became enamored of the cowboy’s way of life and described him thusly: “a man who possesses few of the emasculated, milk-and-water moralities admired by the pseudo-philanthropists; but he does possess, to a very high degree, the stern, manly qualities that are invaluable to a nation” The disastrous blizzard of 1886-87 wiped out Roosevelt’s ranching aspirations.

Having just been elected as vice president under William McKinley in 1900, Roosevelt in January of 1901 headed to Colorado for a five-week cougar hunt. His group started out at Coyote Basin near Meeker, then down to the Lower White River and Scenic Gulch Ranch. Details are scarce, but one count enumerates the success at four grown lions, three whelps and six bobcats. Surely that was an early count, given the number of hounds (30) and men (20). Or maybe they cleaned out the population in the area.

In 1903, Roosevelt (as president) headed back to Colorado for a hunt and general rest and relaxation. His headquarters, the “temporary White House,” were located at the Hotel Colorado, as they always were, a favorite gathering place. Otherwise, the men camped out around Divide Creek, Rifle and Glenwood Springs.

This is the hunting trip during which his group supposedly killed 10 bears, Roosevelt being responsible for six. That’s hard to reconcile in this era of dwindling wildlife and controlled hunting seasons. Elk and deer made up camp meat for the crew, and I’ve always wondered if they knew that at the time, there weren’t any elk in the Roaring Fork Valley — they’d been killed off by miners, farmers, ranchers and professional hunters. Not many bears, either. Of course, the area in which they were hunting was another world away, it likely seemed, as it still does today.

Although well-liked in Colorado, it should be noted that Roosevelt was a gold standard man, which as a politician, meant the end of silver in its own home state. Because of that view, Roosevelt’s 1900 campaign train was mobbed by “hooligans” at a stop in Victor, angry silver supporters carrying placards of his Democratic opponent. Later that year, even though successful nationally, the McKinley-Roosevelt presidential ticket lost to William Jennings Bryant in Colorado by about 30,000 votes. But Roosevelt remained faithful to Colorado. The first national forest reserve he created was in Colorado.

Roosevelt served as vice president only six months, and then, upon the assassination of President William McKinley on Sept. 14, 1901, became President of the United States by succession.

Roosevelt was a great conservative, creating what are today 12 national forests in Colorado, one carrying his name. He saved Yellowstone Park from commercial development; established 150 forest reserves in the U.S., totaling approximately 148 million acres.

If not for Theodore Roosevelt’s prescience to see that so much of it needed to be preserved, the West would be far less than what it is today.

As Teddy once said of Colorado at a train stop in Canon City: “Passing through your wonderful mountains and canons I realize that this state is going to be more and more the playground for the entire republic. Not only have you serious work to do, but you will have to provide for a lot of the rest of us from the East and West, who will come here to see your magnificent landscapes … the real Switzerland of America.”

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at