Two men, a knockdown blow, and the big burn

Excerpt from The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America’s Wilderness Trail

By Mark Larabee and Barney Scout Mann

The PCT has a creation story and it’s filled with interesting tidbits. Our trail’s history is rich with struggle and personalities who overcame them. Here’s a taste from Chapter One of our upcoming book.

In 1899, two men sparred in a boxing ring set inside a great mansion the likes of which only existed in the Gilded Age. One was 33 and the other 41. The younger man had a six-inch height advantage, but the older packed 35 more muscled pounds on his short frame. Stripped to the waist, they traded blows. Smack! A roundhouse punch knocked the elder to the canvas. Yet they became fast friends.

Much later, the 33-year-old wrote of that day, “I had the honor of knocking the future President of the United States off his very solid pins.”

Gifford Pinchot, slim as a barber’s pole and more than six feet tall, was six years shy of becoming the first chief of the United States Forest Service on the day of the sparring match. Pinchot’s punch had flattened his future boss, a squat fireplug of a man named Theodore Roosevelt.

Pinchot and Roosevelt.

Roosevelt and Pinchot. Photo credit: National archives, Library of Congress

One year later, 1900, Roosevelt was elected vice president and there matters might have rested. But in September 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated and Roosevelt was sworn in to the top spot. The ardent outdoor lover and his former sparring partner rolled up their sleeves and went to work.

The Forest Service was created in 1905 and Roosevelt appointed Pinchot its first chief. During the next half decade, 1905 to 1910, the landmass of designated national forests more than doubled, rising from 75 million to 172 million acres. But the agency was cash starved. Many people reviled the newfangled goal of “conservation.”

Indeed, Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon roared out his attitude toward the Roosevelt and Pinchot agenda: “Not one cent for scenery!”

In 1908, administrations changed. Pinchot had thrived under Roosevelt, but under the 300-pound William Taft, both Pinchot and the Forest Service withered. It was an open question whether the Forest Service would survive at all. Then came a potentially lethal blow. Early in 1910, 10 months after taking office, Taft fired Pinchot.

1909 cartoon with Gifford Pinchot crying with Taft.

1909 cartoon with Gifford Pinchot crying with President Taft.

That summer, in the northern Rocky Mountains, a deadly combination smoldered. The timber was drought dry and a series of thunderstorms lit 3,000 small lightning fires. On August 20, hurricane-force winds blew in from the north. The resulting firestorm leveled whole towns, leaving nothing but ashes. Eighty-seven people died and three million acres, an area the size of Connecticut, was charred. It was the largest forest fire in US history. They called it the “Big Burn.”

With the ashes still warm, Pinchot rose from forced obscurity. He mounted a media onslaught. “For the want of a trail, the finest white pine forests in the United States were laid waste and scores of lives lost,” he said. Pinchot gave this interview in the then-popular Everybody’s Magazine and he gave many others. Ten months hadn’t passed since the Big Burn when, at Pinchot’s urging, Congress doubled the Forest Service’s budget so the agency could build fire lookout stations and trails.

And so, in the second decade of the 1900s, in California, Oregon, and Washington, Forest Service crews started to connect one mountain peak to the next, beginning a network of trails—some of which, defying previous logic, ran north to south.

To be released Oct. 11 Available now at shop.pcta.orgAmazon and Barnes & Noble

Buy our PCT book today. You'll love it. The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America’s Wilderness Trail is truly special. Published by Rizzoli. Written by Mark Larabee, Barney Scout Mann, with a forward from Cheryl Strayed.

Buy our PCT book today. You’ll love it. The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America’s Wilderness Trail is truly special.

Author: Mark Larabee

Mark Larabee is the PCTA's Advocacy Director. He is the former editor of the "PCT Communicator" magazine and co-author of "The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America's Wilderness Trail" published in 2016. Larabee is a journalist, part of a team who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for The Oregonian newspaper. He hiked the PCT across Oregon for a 2005 series for the paper and has been with PCTA since 2010. He lives in Portland.