Author: Tom Murdock
Today promises to be an inauguration day unlike any other. 120 years ago, Buffalo was home to another inauguration day unlike any other, when Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th American president on September 14, 1901.
No stranger to Buffalo, then-Governor Roosevelt had visited as recently as February 1900 for a dinner and address to members of the Saturn Club.
Just six months into his tenure as vice president, Roosevelt returned for an entirely different reason on September 6, 1901: McKinley had been shot while attending the Pan American Exposition. Roosevelt stayed at the home of his friend Ansley Wilcox, and departed for a planned family vacation in the Adirondacks when McKinley’s health stabilized. Days later, he was reached by a runner and called back to Buffalo as McKinley’s condition took a turn for the worse.
September 14, 1901
Roosevelt traveled overnight from his campsite through a series of stagecoaches and trains. McKinley passed at 2:15 AM, with word reaching Roosevelt by telegram at the North Creek Train Station as he boarded a train for the final leg of his trip. Arriving in Buffalo at 1:30 PM and still wearing his camping clothes, Roosevelt was whisked to the Wilcox home to freshen up and borrow a hat and coat. He headed further up Delaware Avenue to offer his condolences to McKinley’s widow at the Milburn House (today a part of the Canisius High School campus). While many assumed the ceremony would be conducted there, Roosevelt objected and returned to the Wilcox House to take the Oath of Office.
At 3:30 PM, Roosevelt, a handful of civic leaders, and all but two members of McKinley’s cabinet gathered in the Wilcox library. After some debate, newspaper reporters were admitted, albeit without their photographers. District Court Judge John Hazel administered the oath at 3:32 PM. It was only the second time the oath had been conducted outside of the Capital.
For two long minutes, the crowd remained silent in respect for the fallen president and likely with awe for the task that awaited Roosevelt. He declared a national day of mourning, and to convey stability, asked all cabinet members to stay in their positions, and decided not to convene a special session of Congress.
Roosevelt – and Buffalo’s – Legacy
Close McKinley friend and Ohio Senator Mark Hanna lamented, “that damned cowboy is president now.” 120 years later, that cowboy still ranks as the youngest American president, and certainly among the most consequential. A departure from many presidential norms, he expanded the influence of the office, reveled in his role as a “trust buster,” championed the development of the Panama Canal, expanded conservation efforts, and was the first president to receive 24/7 secret service protection.
On that fateful day, Buffalo added William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt to its presidential legacy of Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland. The somber oath conducted in Buffalo was identical in words to today’s inauguration, if not its elaborate ceremony. Buffalo remains just one of a handful of cities to witness the smooth and peaceful transition of the American presidency. In addition to Saturn Club and the Wilcox Mansion, Buffalo is home to numerous sites of presidential interest, including Forest Lawn Cemetery, City Hall and the McKinley Monument, the Statler, Old County Hall, and neighboring Lincoln Building.