Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1211:
MEDORA

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1211.

Today, we visit Medora, North Dakota. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

David McCullough tells about the last Wild West town -- Medora, in the North Dakota badlands. Today, Medora is hard to find. It's 125 miles due West of Bismarck, 200 miles north of Rapid City, South Dakota, and home to hardly a hundred people.

In 1883, two 25-year-old adventurers, the Marquis de Mores and Theodore Roosevelt, converged in the empty cattle land where Medora now sits. The Northern Pacific railroad had just been built through western Dakota when the handsome French marquis arrived. He had married a wealthy American named Medora and when he saw that stark landscape he formed a plan. Instead of moving steers to Chicago, he'd use his wife's wealth to build a packing plant here. He'd ship butchered beef in the new refrigerated railroad cars.

That same year, a sickly, bookish, young Teddy Roosevelt showed up. He was a son of privilege, out from New York to shoot himself a buffalo. The terrible hardships of the place and the harsh beauty of the scabrous land captivated him. He bought 450 head of cattle and went into business himself.

Roosevelt's and the marquis's money built a cattle town which the marquis called Medora -- soon to be the prototypical lawless western boom town. When the marquis shot a man who was giving him trouble, he got away with it. Roosevelt called Medora a place where pleasure and vice were synonymous. The town buoyed his spirits.

After the marquis began shipping beef to Chicago, he built a 26-room chateau and equipped it with 20 servants for his wife Medora. Roosevelt was quite taken by her, but he didn't much like him. The marquis eventually suspected Roosevelt of undercutting him in a legal matter and wrote to ask where he stood. Since the marquis was a notorious duelist, Roosevelt took the letter as a challenge. He wrote back saying that, if the marquis wanted a duel, he could have it. Lucky for him, the marquis let the matter drop.

In 1886 the dizzying upward spiral of success came apart. The marquis had expanded into projects that finally outreached themselves. First his business empire caved in. Then the Dakotas suffered a terrible winter that killed three steers out of every four.

Roosevelt came back to New York $24,000 poorer, but tanned, toughened, and self-confident. He went on to form the Rough Riders and then to become the most colorful president we've had. He created the National Forest System and won the Nobel Peace Price.

The marquis fared less well. He went back to France, entered politics, and preached rabid anti-Semitism. He was finally murdered by Tuareg tribesmen in North Africa where he was trying to join the French and Arabs in a holy war against the Jews and the English. The town of Medora and the chateau are still there in North Dakota. But the cattle are gone, and Medora is home only to employees of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


McCullough, D., Brave Companions: Portraits in History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, Chapter 4.

See also encyclopedia entries on Theodore Roosevelt and North Dakota, and the many books that have been written about T. R. I have excluded part of the Medora story in the interests of brevity. In June 1884, the year after T. R. first went to Medora, his young wife and his mother both died on the same day in the same house in New York. For the next two years, T. R. threw himself totally into the Medora enterprise. While he was surely one of our most intellectual presidents, the image (self-made) of himself as a wild cowboy marked almost every aspect of his remaining life.



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The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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