In Hot Pursuit of the Truth

Posted by Anita on June 4, 2015

(written by Anita Doering, Archives Staff, and Doug Connell, Archives Volunteer)

On a routine basis, the La Crosse Public Library Archives receives gifts from benefactors who purchase items on eBay. This item was just one of those things. It is the cover only of a Collier’s Magazine dated April 18, 1903, featuring a photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt addressing a rather small, heavily bundled up crowd in what appears to be a residential neighborhood.

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The caption reads, “The President Speaking at La Crosse Wisconsin,” and gives a quote from Teddy Roosevelt.

Teddy did address a very large crowd in La Crosse at Market Square on April 4, 1903, but the view of this documented scene from a stereoview taken by Underwood and Underwood looks vastly different than that of Collier’s

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In this view, we can identify several buildings that surrounded Market Square at this time.  From city directories we can also determine for instance that the Plano Manufacturing Co. of Chicago which sold agricultural implements only had a presence in La Crosse from 1901 to 1903 at the north east corner of Fourth and Jay streets.

The Collier’s photo perplexed us.  Thanks to volunteer Doug Connell’s detective work, he noted that the Library of Congress also has the same scene and attribution of La Crosse as the location of this speech interestingly, but with an April 7 date. Doug began to reconstruct the route that Teddy’s entourage made on this trip focusing around the time of the La Crosse event.

Doug discovered that Roosevelt gave 22 speeches, many on the same day, between April 1-7, 1903. His train left Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, travelling to Chicago, Illinois, then coming north to Madison, Waukesha, Milwaukee, then north and west toward La Crosse and the Twin Cities before heading west to the Dakotas.

One stop in particular peeked Doug’s interest – on April 4, Roosevelt spoke to an “unspecified crowd” in Waukesha, meaning he was speaking to the public and not a specific audience, such as the Wisconsin Legislature. Doug found an April 4 Milwaukee Journal article online that described the weather as an “extremely chilly day” for Roosevelt’s visit to that part of the state that day.

The crowd in the photo certainly seems dressed for chilly weather which would correspond with Waukesha's weather for April 4, 1903.  In addition, an April 3 Waukesha newspaper mentioned that a speaking platform for Roosevelt was being constructed near the town depot.  Another clue!

Doug then tracked down a 1901 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Waukesha on the Wisconsin Historical Society’s website and confirmed that the depot in Waukesha had residences near it which matched the shape and size of those in the photo.  Maps such as these show the footprint of buildings and structures in cities as well as streets, bridges and alleys.

A quick check on Google’s street map view confirmed that the 1903 Collier’s photo was taken in Waukesha and not La Crosse. The spot where Roosevelt spoke is now a parking lot while the depot (not shown in the 1903 photo) has become a restaurant.  The house at far left remains standing today at 250 Maple Street, and although altered, it still retains some of its 1903 appearance.

While most images don’t require this level of research and commitment, it can be a mixture of detective work and luck to find the truth.