CURRICULUM / Ideas / National Parks

Part 3: Empire of Grandeur, 1915-1919


By the time the park idea turned 50 years old, a dozen national parks had been created. While the departments of War, Interior, and Agriculture each claimed responsibility for the parks, the truth was that no one was in charge. Many of the nation's most spectacular landscapes remained unprotected and vulnerable. The building of a dam in Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley stood as a terrible testimony to this fact.

In 1914, John Muir had died after losing the battle to save the beautiful valley, but his efforts were not in vain. An unlikely alliance of railroad barons, adventurers, and some of the nation's wealthiest men would emerge to take up his cause and follow in his spirit. A new leader would promote the parks as never before and embark on a crusade to bring them under a single management. With his own intensely personal reasons for supporting the parks, charismatic businessman Stephen Mather would use his wealth and connections to bring about change.

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In 1914, self-made millionaire Stephen Mather visited Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks and was disgusted by what he saw. The hiking trails were in poor condition, cattle grazed in the meadows, and speculators had plans to log the majestic sequoia trees. Mather dashed off an angry letter to Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane, who happened to be an old college schoolmate. Lane tersely replied that if Mather was unhappy with the way the parks were being administered, he should come to Washington and run them himself.

Mather accepted the challenge. He showed up in Lane's office and agreed to oversee the national parks, but only for a year. With his "incandescent enthusiasm" and driven personality, Stephen Mather was the perfect man for the job.

After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, Mather had worked as a reporter for the New York Sun before discovering his own special genius for publicity and promotion. As sales manager for the Pacific Coast Borax Company, he produced a flood of publicity by glamorizing the company's beginnings in California's Death Valley and branding its product as Twenty Mule Team Borax. Sales skyrocketed.

Mather started a competing borax company and by age 47, he was rich beyond belief and ready for a new challenge. Prone to bouts of depression, Mather had discovered that time in the great outdoors served as a tonic to calm his nerves and revive his energy. He had joined the Sierra Club and counted meeting the legendary John Muir as one of the highlights of his life. With the national parks under his care, Mather now had the chance to promote and protect the places that Muir had taught him to love.


To help him with the task, Mather was assigned a young legal assistant named Horace Albright, who had arrived in Washington from California a year earlier, so poor he wore a borrowed suit and lived at the local YMCA. Albright had also been inspired by a personal encounter with John Muir and was enthusiastic about the national parks. However, much of his work at the Interior Department had been spent responding to angry letters protesting the decision to flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Discouraged, Albright intended to return to California until Mather entered his life and persuaded him to stay for one more year.

As a team, Albright and Mather complemented each other. Mather was charismatic and charming, and his enthusiasm for the parks was infectious. Albright was conscientious and good at administrative work. He also had valuable knowledge of the workings of Washington, the Interior Department, and Congress. After being sworn in, Mather's first action was to more than double Albright's yearly pay, with $2,400 from his own pocket. Next, he hired Robert Sterling Yard, the gifted editor of the New York Herald, to begin churning out publicity for the parks. Mather paid Yard's salary himself and provided him with a personal secretary.

With his small team, Mather set out to build support for a single government bureau devoted exclusively to the national parks. Mather wined and dined congressmen, senators, and publishers. He pushed through legislation that would allow private individuals to make gifts of land and money to the parks. His energy seemed boundless; ideas seemed to pop from his head every minute.

With Albright, Mather embarked on a whirlwind inspection tour of the national parks that would take them nearly 35,000 miles. In Colorado, they joined Enos Mills and a crowd of 300 for the dedication of Rocky Mountain National Park.

At Mount Rainier in Washington State, Mather decided the superintendent was a political hack and fired him. At Yosemite, Mather put up half the money to buy the privately owned Tioga Road, the only east-west road through the park. After raising the rest of the amount from wealthy friends, he gave the road to the park. On his visit to Glacier Park, he bought an $8,000 parcel of land and donated it for a new location for the park's headquarters.

At the Grand Canyon, Mather became convinced that only by making this "unbelievable wonder" a national park would it be sufficiently protected.

Mather felt that the key to getting Congress to pass legislation and set aside money for the parks was to increase the number of visitors. But without money to improve roads, infrastructure, and accommodation, it was nearly impossible to get more people into the parks.


To launch his public crusade for the parks, Mather invited a group of fifteen influential Americans to join him for two weeks in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. This "Mather Mountain Party" included prominent publishers, politicians, businessmen and railroad builders.

Mather believed that in order to win people over to his cause, they had to see and experience the places of beauty for themselves. He paid for the expedition himself and spared no expense, providing his guests with newfangled air mattresses and a Chinese cook named Ty Sing, who prepared lavish meals served on linen tablecloths with fine silverware.

When they came across a campsite littered with tin cans and paper, Mather got his wealthy friends to help pick up the mess and left behind a note that said, "We have cleaned your camp. Keep it clean." They spent a night in a privately owned grove of big trees just outside the boundary of Sequoia National Park. Fearing that the trees might be cut down, Mather bought the grove and donated it to the nation.

The group worked its way up the western flank of the Sierras – fishing, hiking, and swimming in cold mountain streams. The hardiest of the bunch decided to climb Mount Whitney, from which they could survey the vast wilderness John Muir had wanted preserved.

Mather made converts of them all. At the group's final outdoor supper, he advocated the need for a cohesive National Park Service, and urged his new disciples to go out and spread the word. That evening, Ty Sing prepared a special dessert: a pastry into which he slipped a message written in English and Chinese for each member of the party. On Mather's was written, "The sound of your laughter will fill the mountains when you are in the sky."

By the end of 1915, Mather's year was up – but Congress had still not created an agency to oversee the parks. Mather was willing to remain for six more months, but only if Albright would stay on as well. Albright had plans to get married and start a legal career in California, but in the end, like everyone else, he couldn't say no to Stephen Mather.


From the very beginnings of the park movement, railroad companies had been selling and advertising America's parks. The reason was simple: more tourists riding the rails to the parks meant more money for the companies. The railroads were a driving force behind the creation of more national parks, and many railroad barons used their political influence with Congress to achieve their goals. The Northern Pacific had been instrumental in the creation of both Yellowstone and Mount Rainier national parks. The Southern Pacific had worked behind the scenes on behalf of Yosemite, General Grant (now part of Kings Canyon), Sequoia and Crater Lakes national parks.

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Glacier National Park, on Montana's border with Canada, owed its existence in part to the efforts of Louis Hill and his Great Northern Railway. When Congress failed to set aside adequate funds for the park's development, Hill felt free to treat it as his own little mountain kingdom, since he was spending more than $2.3 million to improve it himself.

On every Great Northern Railway brochure and billboard were three words: "See America First." The slogan was part of a promotional campaign aimed at upper-middle-class white Americans from the East Coast who were collectively spending $500 million each year visiting Europe. The Great Northern promoted Glacier National Park as "America's Switzerland."

When World War I broke out in 1914, closing off overseas travel, the railroads saw their chance to promote "See America First" as never before. As a publicity stunt, the Great Northern arranged for a group of Blackfeet Indians to tour the East, performing war dances. They attracted huge crowds and wherever they went, the press referred to them as "the Indians of Glacier National Park."

Stephen Mather enthusiastically embraced the campaign to "See America First." While some purists worried that the railroads already wielded too much influence within the parks, Mather saw them as partners who would help him promote the parks and create a separate park service.


On August 1, 1916, efforts by a coalition of naturalists, scientists, businessmen, and boosters to protect Pacific volcanoes – with the enthusiastic support of Stephen Mather – were rewarded by the creation of Hawai'i National Park. But Congress declined to appropriate any money for it because, as one senator explained, "It should not cost anything to run a volcano." (See sidebar)

In the same year, a large island off the coast of Maine was given protection when, on July 8, 5,000 acres of Mount Desert Island were set aside as a national monument by President Woodrow Wilson. Textile-industry heir George Dorr had worked relentlessly for the designation. He continued to advocate for increased federal protection for the preserve, which would later become Acadia National Park, named for the French word for "heaven on earth."

1916 was also the year that Stephen Mather shifted his promotional crusade for a national park service into high gear. For years, park supporters had been arguing that the national parks needed to be brought together under a single federal agency. Yet every bill to create one had died in Congress, the victim of quiet lobbying by powerful commercial interests and by John Muir's old nemesis, Gifford Pinchot, who believed that the Forest Service should take over the national park areas.

When Mather entered the debate, he added an economic element to the argument. Only under a single government agency, he said, could the parks be properly packaged together and promoted. Using his exceptional promotional skills and the connections he had cultivated, he organized a publicity blitz for the cause, the likes of which Washington had never seen. Newspapers ran glowing stories about the parks; letter-writing campaigns were launched; and school children were encouraged to enter essay competitions about the parks. The National Geographic Magazine devoted an entire issue to America's scenic wonders, and Mather made sure every congressman received a copy.

While the campaign was underway, Horace Albright and others drafted a bill creating a separate parks bureau within the Interior Department. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who was asked to add a statement of purpose that would guide park policy into the unseen future, wrote that the new agency should manage the parks for the enjoyment of the American people, and at the same time keep them "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

His statement embodied a fundamental contradiction: the enjoyment of the parks versus the "unimpaired" preservation of the parks. Albright wrote that despite being aware of this inherent paradox, he and his colleagues believed that, "with rational, careful, and loving thought, it could be done."

Finally, on August 25th, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law an act creating the National Park Service. Stephen Mather was named the new agency's first director, and Horace Albright agreed to stay on as his second in command.


Five months after the creation of the National Park Service, Mather convened a conference in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the park movement. There were speakers on every conceivable park-related topic, as well as an exhibit of paintings by renowned artists depicting scenes from America's national parks.

As the conference continued, Mather was mysteriously absent from the proceedings. On the night after the conference ended, Albright was summoned to a private room in the Cosmos Club where he found Mather in a terrible state – crying, moaning and incoherent. Eventually, an anguished Mather managed to convey that he felt that he was a failure and that there was nothing left to live for.

Mather was brought to a family doctor in Pennsylvania. His wife revealed that Mather had suffered a similar breakdown in 1903, and that further episodes of depression had been relieved only by his spending time in the wilderness of the West – the same trips which had originally inspired his passion for the parks.

After accompanying Mather to the doctor, Albright returned to Washington. He and Interior Secretary Lane agreed to keep Mather's condition secret while Mather received treatment at a sanitarium. In his absence, Albright would serve as acting director.

Although Mather twice attempted to kill himself, his wife believed he would pull through as long as he could be convinced he had something to look forward to. On the wall of his hospital room, she permitted only two decorations. Both of them were framed pictures of Yosemite National Park.


The task of organizing the brand-new National Park Service fell to Horace Albright who, at 27, was the youngest person in the department. He quickly realized that he would have to navigate this uncharted territory alone, with only the ideal and principles for which the Park Service was created as a guide.

Besides testifying before Congress and embarking on a 10,000-mile inspection of the western parks, Albright also had to fend off questions about his boss's whereabouts. His task became even more challenging in April 1917, when the United States entered World War I. Albright battled to protect the parks from Western lumber and livestock interests, who saw the war mobilization as an opportunity to exploit the protected resources of the parks.

President Wilson was persuaded to halve the size of Washington's Mount Olympus National Monument, in order to increase timber cutting. Ranchers eager to graze their livestock in the parks encouraged friendly newspapers to editorialize that "soldiers need meat to eat, not wildflowers." There were even proposals that Yellowstone's wild elk and buffalo be slaughtered for canned meat to send to the troops. When Interior Secretary Lane ordered Albright to let 50,000 sheep graze in Yosemite Valley, Albright threatened to resign – and Lane backed down.


During the war, Albright traveled to southern Utah to view a beautiful canyon of sandstone cliffs that had been set aside as Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909, and ignored by the federal government ever since.


For Albright, it was love at first sight. He was so impressed with the "towering rock walls, splashed with brilliant hues of tans and reds interspersed with whites," that he wanted it to be expanded into a national park. He felt that the name Mukuntuweap, from a Paiute word for "canyon" was too hard to remember; he suggested that it be changed to Zion, the name the local Mormons used for it. Albright's enthusiasm persuaded President Wilson and at the end of 1919, Congress created Zion National Park.


For a while, Stephen Mather was permitted only two visitors: his wife and Horace Albright. His doctor strongly believed that Mather's life depended on the national parks; that it was through the parks that he'd be able to "bring him back." In his regular visits, Albright brought pictures from the Mather Mountain Party, which Mather reviewed while recounting anecdotes from the trip.

Albright also brought a copy of the bill creating Mount McKinley National Park. Wealthy naturalist Charles Sheldon, Mather's friend, had become convinced that the area surrounding the continent's highest peak, Alaska's Mount McKinley, needed to become a national park – not just because of the majestic mountain, but also because of the wildlife teeming around it, especially the endangered Dall sheep. Sheldon had joined forces with the Boone and Crockett Club to push Congress to establish Mount McKinley National Park. This was uplifting news for Mather.

Eighteen months after his collapse, in the fall of 1918, Stephen Mather returned to his job. He threw himself into his work as if he had never been away. He soon took a trip with Albright to Zion, and agreed that its unique beauty made it worthy of national park status. A side trip to Bryce Canyon, with its unusual hoodoo rock formations, filled him with delight.

Reinvigorated from his time in the parks, Mather became enthusiastic about the scenic attractions of Utah and the southwestern deserts. He pushed for the creation of Arches National Park; lobbied for protection for the area around Lehman Caves in Nevada, home of the bristlecone pines – the oldest living things on earth; and promoted the creation of Bryce Canyon National Park.


Despite all his successes, there was one canyon absent from his list of national parks that bothered Mather more than anything: the grandest canyon on earth – 277 miles long, 10 miles wide, and a mile deep. Proposals to make the Grand Canyon a national park dated back to the 1880s, but they all had failed in Congress because of fierce opposition from local ranchers, miners, and settlers. When Theodore Roosevelt had urged the people of Arizona to leave the Grand Canyon as it was, no one had listened.

Already several hotels perched on the canyon's precipice, and when the railways extended their tracks to the South Rim they began constructing even more buildings. Yearly visitation rose into the tens of thousands. (See sidebar)

President Theodore Roosevelt had stretched the limits of the Antiquities Act in 1908, when he established Grand Canyon National Monument. Mather desperately wanted it made into a national park. Horace Albright felt it would be a tremendous boost to his boss's health, so he poured an enormous amount of energy into the project.

However, at every turn, Mather and Albright found themselves blocked by Ralph Henry Cameron, a prospector and hotel owner who considered the canyon his own private domain and was unafraid to take on anyone who got in his way. Cameron had claims on the most scenic and strategically located spots, and he viewed Mather's efforts at creating a national park as a direct economic and political threat. In a lawsuit working its way toward the Supreme Court, Cameron's lawyers were even arguing that Roosevelt's executive order creating the national monument had been illegal.

In 1919, Congress finally passed a bill creating Grand Canyon National Park. A year later, when the Supreme Court ruled against Cameron, Mather and Albright figured that their troubles with him were over at last. But Cameron, newly elected to the U.S. Senate, swore that he would get revenge.

Mather's one-year commitment to the national parks had stretched to five. He could easily have claimed victory for setting the park system in motion and stepped down. But he had renewed energy, and many new ideas for bringing even more people to see the parks.