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