Dan Rattiner's Stories

Bully! Bring Back Montauk’s Theodore Roosevelt County Park

Montauk is a summer resort, probably best known today for its surfing, fishing and nightlife. It has its historic sites. The Montauk Lighthouse is probably the most famous, and though George Washington ordered its construction, he never slept there.

But another famous man who became president did sleep there—for nearly a month. He was Teddy Roosevelt. Yet today there is no public park or plaza in Montauk named for him, and there should be. At the time he was in Montauk, Roosevelt was 39 and a national hero for having led his 1,000 Rough Riders on horseback up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

Though they fought against a superior Spanish force at the top, the Rough Riders prevailed. That victory in 1898 was a pivotal moment in our history, and remarkably, just 29 months later—Roosevelt was Vice President when William McKinley was assassinated—he became the President of the United States.

Colonel Roosevelt, in uniform, came to Montauk with the Rough Riders and the rest of the 32,000-man U.S. Army directly from Cuba by troop ship after the Spanish-American War ended. Because many soldiers had come down with tropical diseases, President McKinley felt that to discharge them directly to their hometowns around the country would result in a national yellow fever epidemic. It was summer.

Instead, McKinley decided to bring them first to a wild, hilly, windblown place and build a tent city encampment. They could be quarantined there for a month or more, if necessary, before being sent home. That’s how Montauk came into the picture.

There are many photographs of Teddy and his men on horseback galloping through the barren pastureland of Montauk. Third House, a large inn built 200 years earlier on a hill and one of only a handful of buildings in Montauk at that time, can sometimes be seen in the background in these photographs. It had become the Army’s headquarters in Montauk.

Roosevelt had not been ill at all upon his arrival, although nearly half of his Rough Riders were. Many of them had to be carried off the troop ships tying up at Fort Pond Bay on stretchers.

From the ship’s railing, Roosevelt looked down to the dozens of reporters assembled on the pier there and had this 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 have had a bully fight.”

* * *

In 1997, Suffolk County bought Third House and nearly 1,000 acres of ranchland surrounding it. Third House was still in use as an inn. Framed photos of Teddy, General Wheeler and others hung on the walls in the dining room. One picture showed President William McKinley together with Teddy in front of Teddy’s tent. President McKinley had come to visit the troops and see how they were getting on.

Roosevelt wrote a friend about encountering McKinley in Montauk.

“Today, the President came to visit Camp and was more than cordial, for when he saw me, just after he got into his carriage, he promptly got out again and stepped toward me so that I had to get off my horse and shake hands with him. Hobart and Griggs did the same thing.”

Quite fittingly, I thought, at the time of its purchase, the county named this property Theodore Roosevelt County Park. It was grand. People coming to Montauk could make the connection between Roosevelt and Montauk and, if interested, learn a bit of history about his time here.

But then, in 2012, the county renamed the park. The old Theodore Roosevelt County Park sign came down. And up went a sign reading Montauk County Park. It is Montauk County Park today, and there is no other public place in the town that is named for Teddy’s bully time here. And this, I felt at the time, and still feel, was a mistake.

Jay Schneiderman was our County Legislator in 2012. When I asked him why this change was made, he said that the naming of the park after Roosevelt back in 1997 had been a mistake because it was “revisionist history.”

“No disrespect to the former president,” he said. “I happen to think he’s a great president and great preservationist. That’s not the issue. He wasn’t there.”

Schneiderman said Roosevelt camped with his Rough Riders at Ditch Plains, a property outside what is now the county park and a mile from Third House. Teddy never set foot in Third House.

But was this really so? Last Saturday, I joined about 30 other people attending a lecture at Clinton Academy in East Hampton given by two historians—Jeff Heatley and Richard Barons—detailing the time that the American Army and Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders came to Montauk. Specifically, I wanted to know if it was true that Teddy never stayed at Third House, but I also wanted to know how the Army fared during their quarantine time in Montauk.

Some people said nobody died in Montauk. Then I heard half the Army died. Which was it? Also, I was of the belief they spent the whole summer in Montauk. Had they?

Barons talked about what caused the Spanish-American War. America was becoming a world power. They wanted influence over the Caribbean islands. But Spain ruled Cuba with an iron hand. There had been rebellions, but the Spanish put them down.

On February 15, 1898, an American frigate, the USS Maine, was in Havana Harbor on a courtesy mission. One night it exploded, killing 260 of the 400 sailors on board. Here in America, the press whipped up the country with the slogan “Remember the Maine,” declaring this had been the work of the Spanish and that war should be declared.

It was. And Teddy Roosevelt wrote to some of his old Harvard friends from college, and cowboys from the year he spent in the west several years earlier, inviting them to join the Rough Rider regiment. The Rough Riders would be joining the rest of the U.S. Army hoping to drive the Spanish out of Cuba.

Historian Jeff Heatley, author of Bully!, a book about Roosevelt at Montauk, then spoke. Turns out the Army had not been in Montauk the whole summer. This was a lot of men. The boats bringing them to Montauk arrived during a 20-day period beginning in early August. When healthy, they were sent aboard railroad trains out to their hometowns around the country beginning in early September, a process that took a week. So some of them were here six weeks, and some only two.

I learned that the creation of a tent city at Montauk for 32,000 men had been overseen by Russell Alger, a political appointee given the title of colonel, who had no experience in organizing such an operation, and he botched it. Food did not arrive in time. The two tent hospitals, one a quarantine hospital and the other a general hospital, lacked necessary medical supplies.

“I am very much afraid that with Alger the trouble is congenital.” Teddy Roosevelt wrote to Senator Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. “He simply can’t do better; he can not learn.” Alger was removed and suffered the humiliation of being the shame of this operation.

The quarantine hospital was up top of Fort Hill, about where the Montauk Manor is today, alongside of which was a fenced-in detention camp. Sickly men had to walk or be carried up this hill. All the soldiers had to spend four days in detention, either at the camp or, if sick, at the hospital, where they were treated for malaria or typhoid.

They remained there until it was felt they were no longer contagious. After that, they were transferred to the regular hospital—which was about where the Montauk Downs Golf Club is today—before being allowed to go to their unit’s bivouac in some of the thousands of white tents that dotted Montauk.

Local people came out by horse and wagon or on the train to be of service. One was Dr. F.P. Lolley of New York who was staying at his summer cottage in East Hampton. Another was J. Finlay Bell, MD, a surgeon practicing in East Hampton.

With the approval of the Army, a private home in Montauk was converted to a new recuperative hospital for 30 soldiers through the efforts of Mrs. L.G. Woodhouse, Miss Julia A. Chadwick, Mrs. T.L. Manson and a group of local carpenters.

Ruth Moran, a nurse who was the daughter of etcher Mary Nimmo Moran and her husband, painter Thomas Moran of East Hampton, also worked as a nurse at Montauk. Tragedy struck her. She came down with typhoid fever and was sent home to recover, which she did, but her mother apparently caught the illness and, six months later, died.

On one occasion, the 404-foot-long troop ship Prairie, with 500 soldiers on board (including 100 that were sick), got lost in a fog and became stuck on a bar several hundred yards off the ocean beach at Napeague, four miles west of Fort Pond Bay. The East Hampton community rallied to help them after flares were set off, with the local life-saving force rowing through the surf in rescue rowboats to receive the soldiers and take them to the beach.

There, several hundred local people—who’d brought blankets, bedspreads, tablecloths and other things to spread out on the beach—cheered their arrival, helped them through the waves, and with kettles, dishes and firewood made the soldiers a grand midnight breakfast of porridge, toast, eggs and bacon such as they hadn’t enjoyed in months. Soon, Army transport wagons arrived to take them to detention.

Of the 32,000 soldiers who were here, more than 200 died, not only of tropical diseases such as malaria but also of malnutrition or dehydration from amoebic dysentery. Only a few cases of yellow fever were diagnosed. It was a terrible time for them.

Nurses from elsewhere came to Montauk to assist the military doctors. They were also shining stars, heroically helping the men recover. Several of them were mentioned by name at the recent lecture, including Annie Wheeler, the daughter of General Wheeler.

Another was Helen Gould, who later founded the Women’s National War Relief service. And there was nurse Cherrie M. French, the 22-year-old daughter of a wealthy family in Waterbury, Connecticut who succumbed to exhaustion at the camp and had to go home. She, however, returned.

“I am all right again,” she told a reporter from The New York World, “and want to get back to my work. It was only a temporary breakdown, and now I feel equal to anything.”

General Wheeler’s son Thomas was also here, but, tragically, he drowned swimming at Ditch Plains.

And Teddy Roosevelt did stay at Third House for a time. Roosevelt’s wife Edith and their two daughters, Alice and Ethel, stayed at Third House for several nights on the weekend of September 4–6 according to two letters Edith wrote to her sister. Though there is no mention of Teddy joining them there, it seems likely he would have.

But at another time, there is no doubt that Roosevelt stayed at Third House. It was reported in The New York Times on August 19, 1898. Roosevelt had arrived on August 15, went through the detention, and then, not needing to go to the hospital, was released with his other healthy men to the Ditch Plains camp reserved for the Rough Riders.

“The Rough Riders, who arrived here last Monday were released from the detention camp today,” the Times wrote, “although Col. Roosevelt left there last night, and for the first time in a good many weeks slept in what he called a ‘civilized’ bed at the Third House, Montauk.”

I think Montauk deserves to have the county park re-named back to Theodore Roosevelt County Park. The “revisionist history” is the other way around. Teddy Roosevelt, this remarkable man of action, would be a great symbol for the summer sports town of Montauk.

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