As you may have heard, the Theodore Roosevelt County Park is going to be, from now on, the Montauk County Park. The County Legislature voted unanimously to make the change. The County Executive signed it into law. Thus the name of Montauk’s most famous citizen is erased from the town. Nothing else in the town is named after him.
I did write about this last month. Why I am writing again is because of what happened in the Legislature during the conversation leading up to the vote. Our County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, who was proposing the change, said that Roosevelt never set foot on the property that is now the park. He said that the naming of the park after him back in 1997 had been a mistake because it was “revisionist review of history.” Re-naming it would correct the revisionist history.
“No disrespect to the former President,” said Schneiderman. “I happen to think he’s a great president and great preservationist; that’s not the issue. He wasn’t there.”
A reporter from The East Hampton Press quoted Dick White, a Suffolk County Park Trustee, also there to ask for the change.
“Montauk County Park is a multi-use park, and we wanted something that was broader than the Theodore Roosevelt County Park,” he said, as quoted on 27east.com. “That’s number one. Number two was Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t camped there. He was camped at Ditch Plains.”
The day after the unanimous vote was taken, East Hampton Patch editor Taylor K. Vecsey interviewed Schneiderman.
“What are we supposed to say?” Schneiderman said. “The park is named after Theodore Roosevelt because he might have visited?…To keep the park named after Theodore Roosevelt is a revisionist review of history.”
There is plenty of evidence that Theodore Roosevelt was on the property and in the ranch house (called Third House) of what is now the Montauk County Park. And I will get to that in a moment.
But why I think this important to know is not because the name of the park has been changed because of these inaccuracies, but because in the future people will think differently about Theodore Roosevelt and his time in Montauk because of these inaccuracies. The truth is that what is now Montauk County Park with its Third House was the headquarters for all the American troops in Montauk during 1898. Roosevelt was the great American hero for the U.S. Army in the Spanish-American War, and on his return from Cuba he was an officer posted to Third House. It was from here that he began the political campaign that propelled him to the Presidency of the United States just two years later.
Teddy Roosevelt was at the railing of one of the first troopships to glide into the dock at Fort Pond Bay in Montauk on August 14, 1898. A reporter on the shore from the New York Herald (as reported in the book American Gibralter: Montauk and the Wars of America) wanted to hear what he had to say.
“I am feeling disgracefully well…I feel positively ashamed of my appearance when I see how badly off some of my brave fellows are—Oh, but we had a bully fight.”
More troopships arrived, about a hundred of them all together, all of them bearing some American soldiers who were healthy enough, but others bearing soldiers near to death with the tropical fevers they had encountered in the hills of Cuba.
A reporter from the New York World described what he saw when the first victorious soldier came off a troopship called the Mobile.
“The first man brought off the ship was unconscious. His form was so thin that the bones seemed to be sticking through the skin of his arms. His parched lips were drawn back from his teeth and his eyes were partly closed…Four of the regulars carried him to an ambulance and put him in. ‘He’s dead, isn’t he?’ asked a young man…’No, not dead,’ replied an army surgeon, ‘but he is in a bad way, indeed.’”
From these hundred or so troop ships, nearly 30,000 victorious soldiers, many in wretched physical condition, disembarked. They were leaving their troop ships to arrive in Montauk to be quarantined. The President was told if he did not do so and they were mustered out and returned directly to their homes, their arrival would surely cause a tropical disease epidemic across the land. In Montauk during these five weeks, 263 would die, many buried in this place. It was only on September 14 that the troops would be allowed to go home.
Hospital tents had been set up to be ready before the troops arrived in Montauk. Nurses and doctors were present. This was long before modern medicine, though. There was not much that anybody could do.
Teddy Roosevelt, the war hero, spent his first four days living in the Dickinson House, a farmhouse in Montauk that took in boarders down by Ditch Plains. The rest of the army was bivwacked in more than 5,000 tents scattered all about the nearly entirely uninhabited rolling hills of Montauk between Ditch Plains and the railroad station. According to pencil sketched maps made at the time, the unit known as the Rough Riders was camped not far from the Dickinson House. Photographs show that Roosevelt spent much of his time with the Rough Riders. But he is also seen talking with President William McKinley who came on September 3 to visit the troops in their hospital tents as they recovered.
Montauk is 16 miles long and about four miles wide. The distance between Ditch Plains and Third House is about two miles as the crow flies. As you can see from the photos, the landscape at Montauk at that time was treeless. It was just rolling hills. It is likely you could see from Ditch Plains to Third House. Third House was where the Generals and other officers were quartered.
On August 18, just four days after Colonel Roosevelt’s arrival, “(he) received approval to be quartered at Third House” with the rest of the officers according to a new history book by Henry Osmers called American Gibraltar.
Osmers then quotes numerous accounts of occasions when Colonel Roosevelt was at Third House.
“Theodore Conklin, the proprietor of Third House, and Colonel Roosevelt developed a friendly relationship with each other,” Osmers writes, quoting from the book Montauk by Jeanette Rattray. “One day, Roosevelt’s son Teddy was caught sliding down a haystack, totally destroying it. After repeatedly warning him not to do this, the younger Roosevelt kept on. Conklin grabbed the boy and proceeded to thrash him. While this was going on, up came Colonel Roosevelt, who shouted ‘that’s right! Give it to him Captain Conklin!’
“Another incident involving the Colonel took place at Third House one night around midnight when a frightened servant girl woke Mrs. Conklin and said, ‘Young Captain H. is in the dining room, swearing something awful! I’ve brought out everything in the pantry, cold meat and cake and milk, but he says he’s got to have a hot supper!’ Mrs. Conklin got up and softly headed for the dining room where she found the captain ‘roaring hungry after an evening ride in the moonlight, probably with one of the sixty five pretty nurses looking after the sick soldiers.
“Suddenly, Colonel Roosevelt appeared from a small office off the dining room an approached the table. With characteristic humility, he said, ‘I am very sorry, Mrs. Conklin, that you have been disturbed; what you have here is good enough for the President of the United States. Please go and get your rest.’ By morning, Captain H. was gone and was never again seen at Third House.”
A number of people I spoke to about the discrepancy between what is known about Teddy Roosevelt at Montauk and what was told last month to the County Legislature, said I should talk to Shank Dickinson, now in his early 90s, whose grandfather and grandmother owned the Dickinson House at Ditch Plains where Teddy Roosevelt stayed when he first arrived.
I spoke to Shank. “Roosevelt was posted to Third House,” he said. “But he never went to live there.”
I also talked to Jay Schneiderman who said he only knew what the Historical Society had told him.
And I also talked to Dick White, who told me that the press took everything way out of context. “I never said he didn’t go to Third House,” he told me. “I said he camped with his Rough Riders.”
Colonel Roosevelt, General Wheeler, the Rough Riders and all the troops were all over Montauk either on foot or on horseback, either on maneuvers or just helping the other soldiers back to health as best they could. The troops were mustered out on September 14 and were then able to head off by train to their homes around the country as heroes.
In June of 1900, less than two years after meeting Roosevelt in Montauk, President William McKinley chose Theodore Roosevelt to be his running mate in the upcoming election. The President was re-elected, and a few months after that, the President was assassinated by a deranged man in Buffalo at the Pan-American Exposition being held there, and Teddy Roosevelt became President of the United States.
Many consider him among the greatest Presidents this country ever had.
It is my suggestion that the Town Green in Montauk be renamed the Theodore Roosevelt Town Green.
It is also the suggestion of Dick White and myself that the Dickinson House, still standing, a white house in the first left turn going down Ditch Plains Road, be given a historical designation as “The Teddy Roosevelt House.”
It all began in Montauk.