The older man with the great white beard was just turning 66 that week in 1903; his friend was not yet 45.
They had both been born in New York, but the older man was born in the Catskill Mountains, a farm boy with few comforts, while the younger man was from a wealthy family in New York City.
The older man was quiet and a bit shy. The younger man was energetic and outgoing, and now, as he sat on the side of the table facing towards the front of the train, he looked out and saw something ahead on the wide Dakota plains.
He leapt up from the table and hurried to the door of the railcar, out to the platform behind.
The old man turned to look out the window and saw a small, brown, one-room schoolhouse alone on the prairie. Near the tracks, the teacher stood, with all the children in her school lined up, waving at the man on the platform as the train passed, while he waved back to them with the big, white napkin that had been on his lap a moment before.
As the teacher and students passed out of sight behind the fast-moving train, the younger man came back inside and sat back down.
“Those children wanted to see the President of the United States, and I could not disappoint them,” he said. “They may never have another chance.”
With that, Theodore Roosevelt went back to eating lunch and conversing with his friend John Burroughs, one of the most famous nature writers of the time.
Burroughs was amused by the President’s eagerness to wave to the children, but he was not surprised. Already on their trip from Washington, DC, to Yellowstone National Park, he had seen how eager the president was to meet people along the way.
At one place, the train had stopped to add more water to its steam engine’s boilers and Roosevelt got out to greet the crowd that had gathered.
“We could hear his voice, and the cheers and laughter of the crowd,” Burroughs recalled. “And then we heard him say, ‘Well, good-by, I must go now.’ Still he did not come. Then we heard more talking and laughing, and another ‘good-by,’ and yet he did not come. Then I went out to see what had happened. I found the President down on the ground shaking hands with the whole lot of them.”
What the two men had in common was their love of nature. A friend had introduced them in 1889 because he knew they shared an interest in birdwatching.
Roosevelt was a great fan of John Burroughs’ best-selling books about animals and nature. In fact, he used to give away copies of the books to the poor children he visited in the city slums, along with his friend Jacob Riis, a photojournalist who fought poverty.
Roosevelt knew those children had never seen the animals and plants in Burroughs’ essays, but he felt it was important they learn about things outside their own poor, cramped apartments. He himself had loved to visit the countryside when he was a boy, and he had even sent his son, Ted Jr., to spend a weekend with Burroughs at his woodland home above the Hudson River.
Someday, he thought, if he put the idea into their heads, perhaps those poor city kids would find a way to get away from their smoky, dirty neighborhoods and out into the country, where they could discover for themselves the joys of nature he so loved.
“The country is the place for children,” he wrote in his autobiography, “and, if not the country, a city small enough so that one can get out into the country.”
But he also knew that, if nothing was done, there might be little nature left for those children to visit as they grew older, or that the only nature left might be locked behind the gates and fences of wealthy people, where no one else could enjoy it.
He and John Burroughs and their friends, people like John Muir and George Grinnell, had seen what could happen to the countryside when there were no laws to protect it. Roosevelt and Grinnell had already founded “The Boone and Crockett Club,” an organization of hunters and outdoorsmen, to help conserve nature.
And, first as a member of the New York State Assembly, then as Governor, Roosevelt had worked to protect places like the Adirondack Forest, where careless cutting of timber had left the hillsides with nothing to prevent erosion, and the rivers had become clogged with mud.
Even when laws were passed to protect the Adirondacks, Roosevelt discovered, the game wardens hired to prevent poachers from killing animals illegally were city people who got their jobs from powerful friends but knew nothing of the woods and rarely even visited the mountains. He ordered that those jobs go to local woodsmen who understood the wild places.
He had helped change how things were done so that New York’s wild places could be saved.
Now he was traveling to Yellowstone as president, to see what he could do for all the wild places of America.
There was much even for people like Roosevelt and Burroughs to learn about nature. Their trip would mark an important moment in the history of conservation.
Text copyright 2014, Mike Peterson – illustration copyright 2014, Christopher Baldwin