This January marked the centennial of the death of Theodore Roosevelt. That anniversary—January 6, 1919—reminds us all presidents can have an impact on an individual state. But TR meant more to Nevada than many who came before and after him.
Roosevelt was the youngest president ever—forty-two when William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. Roosevelt had been a cowboy, a police commissioner, a mayoral candidate, the assistant secretary of the navy, and governor of New York. Republican bosses put him on the ticket with the robust McKinley to put him on the shelf. As one of those bosses complained, that damned cowboy was now president.
Roosevelt had spent time in the west—specifically Dakota Territory. At least he had lived out among the wide-open spaces with little water. One of his first actions involving Nevada concerned water. U.S. Senator William Stewart and Representative Francis Newlands both had supported reclamation: the idea of selling public lands to pay for irrigation projects. Newlands made it his main issue, and Roosevelt supported it. Not that TR was overly inclined to share any glory with Newlands, who was a Democrat. He preferred to credit Francis Warren, the Republican senator from Wyoming who was deeply involved in passing the bill. But the important thing was that the Reclamation Act passed Congress in 1902, Roosevelt signed it, and the West soon sprouted dams, reservoirs, and canals. The new Reclamation Service’s first project was Derby Dam on the Truckee River … part of the Newlands Project, which moved water from the Truckee and Carson Rivers to the Lahontan Valley near Fallon. Thanks to Roosevelt, Newlands, and their allies, that became important farming country.
Later, the Bureau of Reclamation, having built several smaller dams, prepared to build a big one. It contracted with Six Companies and the result was Hoover Dam. It was dedicated by TR’s cousin, Franklin, in 1935.
TR did much more in connection with Nevada. He set aside forest reserves. He was the driving force behind creating national parks, and Nevada now has parks and conservation and recreation areas for residents and tourists to enjoy.
In 1907, the radical Industrial Workers of the World tried organizing miners in Goldfield. There was a strike. When there was a murder, the mine owners got Governor John Sparks to ask Roosevelt to send in federal troops. TR did but smelled a rat. He didn’t know Sparks apparently owed money to one of the mine owners, George Wingfield. But he sensed the troops weren’t needed, sent out investigators, and then told Sparks he was withdrawing them. He said Sparks had to tend to it himself, leading to the governor calling a special legislative session. The result was the Nevada State Police, which lawmakers later consolidated into another agency, the Nevada Highway Patrol.
Roosevelt also visited the state several times, during and after his presidency. After leaving the White House, he ran for the presidency again in 1912 and split the Republican Party … and gave indigestion to a lot of Nevada Republicans torn between the progressivism TR stood for and loyalty to the party, which was more conservative. TR died only a few years later, having spent his life where he wanted to be: as he put it, in the arena.
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