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Roosevelt Rides the Rails into the Woods Mountain Maryland Style: Greatest Maryland Forest Conservation Story Ever Told

By Champ Zumbrun

New York State Governor Theodore RooseveltOn October 25, 1899, Theodore Roosevelt, then Governor of New York, passed through Allegany County on a four ½-hour “whistle stop” tour. While riding on the Cumberland and Pennsylvania Railroad Roosevelt whisked like a whirlwind through the towns of Barton, Lonaconing, Ocean, Frostburg, Mount Savage, and Cumberland. Receptive crowds gathered by the hundreds at each train stop to hear the electrifying speaker from New York.

The conservation-minded Roosevelt certainly must have observed from his train window as he passed through Allegany County the massive devastated condition of the forest caused by wildfires, overgrazing, and abusive timber harvesting practices that neglected any thought of forest regeneration and the planting of trees. About this time inventories revealed that only about thirty percent of Maryland’s original ninety-five percent forest cover still survived. There were no state parks or state forests, or for that matter no national parks to which the public could visit for outdoor recreation. Green Ridge State Forest, Rocky Gap State Park, or Dan’s Mountain State Park did not yet exist.

Maryland Governor Lloyd Lowndes Jr. New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, Maryland Governor Lloyd Lowndes Jr. and U.S. Senator George Alexander Pearre arrived early that morning at Piedmont, West Virginia on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The purpose of these well-known politicians’ presence in Allegany County was to promote the reelections of Governor Lowndes and President William McKinley.

From Piedmont, the prestigious political party transferred to the Cumberland and Pennsylvania Railroad to begin their barnstorming tour up through the Georges Creek Valley. ​At each stop Roosevelt, the San Juan War hero, made mention of his role the summer of 1898 in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. The New York Governor assured the crowds to which he spoke that the strife caused by the Civil War, that once divided the nation , was over. Roosevelt conveyed that at San Juan the North and South had fought bravely together as one unit and that the recent war had united once again the “Blue and the Gray” as one country.

Then New York State Governor Theodore Roosevelt on wjhistle-stop tour in Western MarylandTeachers adjourned students from school to see in person Roosevelt and their state governor. At Barton, a young boy at the train station called out for the Rough Rider to speak. When Roosevelt’s time came to to engage the crowd from the rear section of the train car, he commented that “miners, hunters, and cowboys” had served honorably in his regiment. “They came from a country where men were men and women were women,” Roosevelt said,” much like the humble people who stood before him.

At Lonaconing, 1,100 people greeted the dignitaries. An older woman presented Roosevelt with a “white silk muffler.” While thanking her Roosevelt mentioned that a Lonaconing man named William Tarbet had served in his command as a Rough Rider. After cheers for their hometown hero, a person shouted from the crowd that he was a friend of Tarbet.

On they journeyed to Frostburg, where perhaps the party received its most enthusiastic reception. At each town where the train stopped a reporter humorously observed that women presented or tossed at Roosevelt such an abundance of flowers that the war hero had to duck “flowers as he had not dodged bullets at San Juan.” After their well-received stump speeches at Frostburg the whistle stop tour continued and paused at Mount Savage with more speeches before continuing down through the Jennings Run Valley and Cumberland Narrows.

Theodore  Roosevelt sketch in 1899 cumberland paper.jpgArriving at Bedford Street in Cumberland Roosevelt transferred from the train onto a horse drawn carriage. The party was then shuttled directly to the Academy of Music. The Cumberland Evening Times, dated October 25, 1899, records the following account of Roosevelt’s visit to Cumberland: “About 10:30 o’clock the South Cumberland band marched down Baltimore Street playing a lively air at which time the children from Union Street School were turned out and marched in great glee to the Academy of Music and virtually took possession of the second gallery… It was precisely eleven o’clock when Governor Roosevelt … stepped upon the stage.”

Roosevelt spoke to a standing-room only crowd of children and adults for about a half an hour in the Hall of the Academy of Music, but it was clear to the audience that Roosevelt was beginning to lose his voice. The last stop of the tour ended in South Cumberland where Roosevelt gave one last speech at the railroad roundhouse before departing Allegany County around 12:30 PM.

Less than one month after Roosevelt toured Allegany County, a fateful occurrence set up a chain of events that had a great impact on Roosevelt’s career. On November 21, 1899, Garret Hobart, Vice President of the United States, died from a heart condition. Shortly thereafter, in 1900, delegates chose Roosevelt to replace Hobart as Vice President. In 1901, Roosevelt then became President of the United States after the assassination of President McKinley.

Perhaps it was during the 1899 tour through Allegany County, when he first observed first-hand the poor condition of Maryland’s forests, that Roosevelt planted symbolically the first seeds of forest conservation in Maryland. These seeds lay dormant for several years until President Roosevelt again symbolically watered those seeds by sending to western Maryland Gifford Pinchot, Chief of the United States Forest Service”, along with Edith Roosevelt, the First Lady, and Theodore Roosevelt Jr., Teddy’s and Edith’s fifteen-year-old son.

Giffor-Pinchot-in-1898-Photo-credit--Frances-Benjamin-Johnston.jpgIn May 1902 Pinchot’s distinguished party arrived at Oakland, MD on the B&O Railroad. From here, Pinchot and his companions traveled ten miles to McHenry where they stayed at a lodge along Deep Creek owned by Gus W. Delawder, former “Elected Head” of Oakland (1879), who worked as an agent for the B&O Railroad and also served as the Commissioner of Fisheries for Maryland. Pinchot and Delawder were kindred spirits, for like the chief forester, Gus was “a noted authority on game and fish and a most successful angler and hunter.” During his stay with Delawder, Pinchot, “the Father of American Forestry” must have observed the forest devastation that Roosevelt had witnessed earlier.

Note: Delawder entertained many prominent guests at his Deep Creek lodge including President Grover Cleveland. An early settler of Oakland, Delawder died in September 1906. In 1918, a fire destroyed Delawder’s Deep Creek fishing resort.

Fred W. Besley, Maryland's 1st State ForesterIn 1906, the State of Maryland was the third state in the country to establish a “State Board of Forestry” to oversee the management of the forestland. Pinchot handpicked one of his federal field foresters, Fred W. Besley, to serve as Maryland's first State Forester. Because Pinchot paid part of Besley’s salary, Pinchot had a say regarding who worked in the Maryland State Forester position. The seed that Roosevelt planted and Pinchot watered sprouted. Maryland’s first State forester fertilized the symbolic conservation tree and it thrived for many years with the caring stewardship of the land.

Besley brought experience and knowledge to the State Forester position that he had gained working as the superintendent of the tree nursery in Halsey, Nebraska, notable for being the first U.S. Forest Service tree nursery in the country.

In 1914, Besley pioneered and championed the development of the state tree nursery at College Park. The establishment of the state tree nursery significantly aided Besley's efforts to restore Maryland's devastated forests. Wise forest management restored the forests of Maryland. One measurement of the many successes that occurred is that where there were no state parks or state forests at the beginning of twentieth century, Maryland today enjoys 9 state forests and 66 state parks where 13 million people annually visit to enjoy the great outdoors, creating untold positive benefits for the economy, community, and environment. The environmental achievements set in motion in western Maryland a little more than 100 years ago by Roosevelt, Pinchot, and Besley are considered today the prologue to the greatest Maryland conservation story ever told.

Note: Originally published in Allegany Magazine, July 2016 edition


Zumbrun, Francis Champ. Fred W. Besley: Forestry Pioneer. 5 November 2005. 3 June 2015 .

Zumbrun, Francis Champ. Fred W. Besley: Maryland’s First State Forester 1906 - 1942.

Mayor Roster for Oakland, Maryland

“Very Rough Riding; Of the Roosevelt-Lowndes Tour in this County.” Cumberland Evening Times, October 25, 1899. pp.1,4.