Spring 1972

Noah LaCasse: Presidential Hiking Mate

IN THE SHADOW of Mt. Marcy in the year 1901, a local guide named Noah LaCasse became a bit actor in a drama that shook the nation and gave us a new President.

Little did Noah dream he would play such a part when he crossed the border from his native Canada into Vermont at the age of sixteen. Working as a lumberjack, or at any job he could find, Noah moved across Vermont and into the Adirondacks. At the age of eighteen, he took a position as winter caretaker of a lumber camp near Newcomb, where he had only to care for himself and a cow. However, after three weeks he had enough of the isolation. He and the cow walked out of the woods to the main road and down to Newcomb, where he delivered the cow to the owner.

Despite Noah’s aversion to the isolation of the lumber camp, he enjoyed the people and land around Newcomb, and he decided to make it his home. He grew to know the mountains and rivers, the roads and trails into the forests that covered the area. Although he strayed away from the area on several occasions (once to attend a year of college at Troy Conference Academy in Poultney, Vt, and, during the Gold Rush in 1900, to seek his fortune in the mountains of Alaska), Noah’s roots were firmly established in Newcomb. He managed to earn a living by guiding from April through the fall hunting season in November and in the winter by working for lumber companies as a lumberjack and river driver.

Several miles east of Newcomb was situated Tahawus, a company town built in the mid 19th century for the workmen of the McIntyre Iron Company. When the mine was closed by inadequate transportation out of the mining area, impurities in the ore, floods, and the Panic of 1857 (the mine was later to be reopened by National Lead, which discovered that the impurities were actually Titanium), the property and land were leased by The Tahawus Club. The Club was formed by a group of wealthy sportsmen who promptly turned the village boarding house into the Club House and the houses built for the mine personnel into cottages for guests. The Club wished to profit from the experience of the local guides, and consequently hired the most competent, able bodied men to lead hunting, fishing, and climbing expeditions into the wilderness. By this time, Noah’s expertise in the woods was well known, and he immediately went to work for the Club. The stage is now set for the act in which Noah LaCasse appeared so briefly, but which held such great importance to him throughout the rest of his life.

During the summer of 1901, Theodore Roosevelt, Vice President under William McKinley, had been on a speaking tour of the Western States and was concluding his trip with a political jaunt from Minnesota to Vermont. He was tired, and had had a bout with bronchitis. In addition, illness at home the previous winter made it imperative that the family get away from Sagamore Hill, their home on Long Island, and journey into the mountains to regain their health. James McNaughton, President of the McIntyre Iron Company, offered his cottage to the Vice President for the needed vacation and rest in the mountains which Roosevelt loved so much. Mrs. Roosevelt, with the four children and governess, went to the McNaughton cottage at Tahawus while the Vice President completed his political obligations in Vermont.

On September 6, 1901, Ex-Lieutenant Governor Nelson W. Fiske of Vermont was entertaining the Fish and Game League at a dinner under a large tent on the lawn of his home on Isle La Motte in Lake Champlain. The main speaker was the Vice President. During dinner a man hurried across the lawn and spoke to Roosevelt, who quickly got up and left. William McKinley had been shot while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo!

The previous year a plot by anarchists to kill six world leaders had been discovered in Paterson, New Jersey. Mr. Cortelyou, secretary to McKinley, was afraid of the situation at Buffalo where the President would be in close contact with the public at a reception. His fears were realized when a slender young man, his hand wrapped in a handkerchief, shot twice. The President fell to the floor with a bullet through the abdomen.

Roosevelt arrived in Buffalo on September 7th, stayed three days, and as the President was apparently improving, decided to go back to his family in the mountains and have his “tramp” up Mt. Marcy as he had planned.

When Theodore Roosevelt arrived at the Club, he asked Noah to guide him up Marcy on the 12th. Noah had previously guided for Roosevelt when the latter was Governor of New York State, and they had enjoyed each other’s company. Noah, in his later years, said that Roosevelt was a true sportsman and very friendly.

The climbing party that day was composed of the Vice President and Mrs. Roosevelt; two of their children, Kermit and Ethel, with their governess; James McNaughton; Beverly R. Robinson and his brother, Herman F. Robinson; and two guides—ten persons in all. One of these guides was Edward Dimmock, and Noé, as Beverly Robinson wrote it, was the other.

The group climbed up to Lake Colden where they spent the night in two cabins. The next morning the women and children, guided by Ed Dimmock, returned to the McNaughton camp at the Upper Works. Noah and the men continued up Marcy.

It had been raining all day, a cold September drizzle. Fog covered the top of the mountain and the trail was slippery. When they reached the summit the fog suddenly was swept away by a brisk wind, and the sun shone through, lighting up the mountains and valleys and Lake Tear-of-the-Clouds, three hundred feet below. Shortly, however, the fog returned, and they began their descent to Lake Tear where they stopped to rest and eat lunch. Noah said he asked Roosevelt if he would like to be President, and Roosevelt answered, “Not by way of the graveyard.”

About two o’clock a man appeared on the lower trail. It was Harrison Hall, a Club guide, whom Noah recognized by his walk long before they could see his face. He brought a message written in longhand by Mike Breen at the Lower Works Club House: “The President appears to be dying and members of the Cabinet in Buffalo think you should lose no time coming.” Noah said that “Ted,” as he was accustomed to call Roosevelt, shook his head and repeated, “Complicated! Complicated! Complicated!”

They quickly packed and started down the trail with Roosevelt setting the pace and reached the camp, twelve miles distant, in three and one quarter hours. Roosevelt was tired and felt that morning was soon enough to start for Buffalo. Noah recalled the details of their arrival: “Reaching the Club House covered with mud, I proceeded to take Mr. Roosevelt’s shoes and pants down to the lake and washed the mud from them. We remained at the Club House until about 10 o’clock p.m. when another message came, ‘McKinley is dying’.”

Three relay drivers with teams and a buckboard were already waiting. At 10:30 David Hunter started the precarious ride to North Creek with the man who was soon to become President. The road was rocky and slippery with mud, and the horses stumbled but recovered in time to prevent the buckboard from sliding down the steep banks beside the road. The thirty-five miles to the Railroad Station were covered by 5:30. A special train composed of the engine and one coach was waiting with steam up. Roosevelt was handed a telegram stating that the President had died at 2:15 that morning.

At Ballston Spa Roosevelt sent the following telegram to his wife at Tahawus: “President died 2:15 this morning. Theodore Roosevelt.”

When Noah was seventy-four years old, retired in his own home in Newcomb, he told a reporter that he saw Roosevelt once more in New York City, and that the President and he talked over the events of that memorable day in the lives of both.

Noah LaCasse cherished his day in the sun and would tell his story to anyone who was interested. I was fortunate enough to hear it from Noah himself. At the time he was Fire Warden for the State of New York, stationed at the Cornell Hill Fire Tower on the forested property of Thomas Luther in Saratoga County. There was a comfortable log camp in which he lived during the spring to fall season, while winters found him back in Newcomb in his own house.

While Noah was talking, he stopped long enough to go into the cabin and bring out several articles of which, one could see, he was extremely proud. There was the skillet clock given to him by the President, a pack basket, and an iron bake oven for an open campfire. He said he had used oven and basket when he guided Roosevelt, and that the latter had carried the basket for a time. When he retired, he presented them to Thomas Luther.

After the Roosevelt incident he was a favorite guide. Men asked for him just to hear him tell the story. Harold Thomas feels that it was a great privilege for any sportsman to have had Noah LaCasse as a guide.

In the winter of 1948–49 Noah was no longer able to care for himself, and on January 6th, his friends, Jack Barnett and Harold Thomas, took him to the Masonic Home in Utica. He died there on May 16th, 1951 and was buried at Newcomb.

Things have changed at Tahawus since Noah’s time: the Club House site is a grassy field; there is a hard road instead of the rutted dirt one of 1901; a parking lot has been leveled off at the foot of the famous old trail at the base of Marcy where cars and campers show the number of hiking parties up the trail. All the guides of the Tahawus Club are now gone—Alexander Thomas, Ernest Rist, Ed Dimmock, Harrison and John Hall and Noah. Yet the memories of these men and their exploits shall live on, and the tale of Noah LaCasse and “Ted” shall shine above the rest.

Tags: , , , , , ,