CURRICULUM / Ideas / National Parks

Part 4: Going Home, 1920–1933


Before the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916, the parks had existed as a haphazard collection of scenic places – occasionally guarded by the Army, often ignored by Congress, and in many ways controlled by the railroads that had funded much of the development in the parks. Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, was determined to change all that. He wanted more national parks within reach of more people, and he wanted them promoted as one cohesive system.

In order to increase the number of visitors, Mather and his young assistant, Horace Albright, would ally themselves with the machine that had already begun transforming American life: the automobile. Their efforts would bring Americans to the parks as never before. But for some, allowing cars into the parks was the equivalent of allowing the serpent into Eden. While it was an easy decision for Mather, many park supporters worried that he had made a pact with the devil.

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For Stephen Mather, directing the National Park Service was a noble calling – one so compelling that it had drawn him away from private industry where he had made his fortune.

While he was known for his intense energy and friendliness, he was also prone to bouts of depression that required hospitalization. In the parks, he found solace and rejuvenation, and he wanted all Americans to experience that healing power. But he realized that until more people started showing up, Congress would never create more parks, or even support the existing ones. "There could never be too many tourists for Stephen Mather," Horace Albright remembered. "He wanted as many as possible to enjoy his 'treasures.'"

Mather and Albright were willing to try almost anything to attract publicity and lure more visitors. They approved golf courses and zoos at different parks, and even proposed Yosemite as an ideal setting for the winter Olympics. When a new hotel was to be built in Yosemite, Mather arranged for the first charge of dynamite to be detonated via remote control by the Secretary of the Interior, sitting at his desk thousands of miles away.

Park superintendents tried to follow Mather's lead in creative public relations. In Yellowstone, Albright arranged for a "Buffalo Plains Week" in which cowboys and Crow Indians stampeded the park's bison herd for arriving tourists. In Mesa Verde, the superintendent's 12-year-old son was encouraged to write a book about growing up among the cliff dwellings. Mather wrote the book's foreword and posed for a picture with the young author. Albright even proposed stringing a cable across the Grand Canyon to allow trams to carry tourists from the South Rim to the North Rim; at the last minute, Mather rejected the idea when he realized it would ruin the view of the great chasm.


It was Mather's decision to embrace the automobile that would have the greatest impact on the number of people visiting national parks. Even John Muir, Mather's hero, had admitted that the automobile might help create new allies for the parks, but the great naturalist worried that automobiles would "mingle their gas-breath" with the pristine air of the parks.

Mather had no such fears. By 1918, tourists arriving in Yosemite by automobile outnumbered those coming by train, seven to one. By the end of 1920, for the first time in history, the number of people visiting the parks exceeded a million a year. The automobile, Mather enthused, "has been the open sesame."

Mather joined forces with automobile clubs, good-roads associations, local governments, and car manufacturers to lobby for a national park-to-park highway linking all the western parks. He believed this scenic highway would pour "tourist gold" into the communities along its route.

In the 1920s, the "auto camping" craze swept the country, and even President Harding tried out the fad when he joined Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone on one of the well-publicized trips they took each year. Mather took advantage of the trend, urging states to build a network of parks under the slogan, "A State Park Every Hundred Miles." Among the people who would be affected by the introduction of the automobile to the parks were Margaret and Edward Gehrke, park enthusiasts who had visited their first national park by train. Now that they had a car, they would make full use of Mather's scenic highways. (See sidebar)

In 1925, Mather staged one of his classic publicity stunts, telling his park superintendents to form car caravans and travel together to Mesa Verde on the park-to-park highway, generating as much news about it as possible along the way. That year, visitation at national parks topped 2 million for the first time.


Another of Mather's critical tasks was to hire competent people to run the parks. In the past, political patronage had determined who got jobs, with some poor results. A well-connected employee at Glacier National Park was so inept that his patrols were restricted to following the railroad tracks to keep him from getting lost. The son-in-law of a Mesa Verde superintendent was caught looting precious artifacts from the cliff dwellings.

To remedy the situation, Mather began hand-picking new superintendents. He put Jesse Nusbaum, a professional archaeologist, in charge of Mesa Verde. John White, an adventurer and war veteran who had taken a low-paying job just to be at the Grand Canyon, was made superintendent of Sequoia National Park. At Mount McKinley in Alaska, Mather chose Harry Karstens, who had led the first successful climb to the top of the continent's highest peak in 1913. For the most prestigious post of all, Mather chose his own trusted lieutenant, making Horace Albright superintendent of Yellowstone.

Below the superintendents, Mather wanted a cadre of dedicated and professional park rangers. They should be "men between the ages of 21 and 40," Albright specified, "of good character, sound physique, and tactful in handling people." They also had to be able to ride horses, build trails, fight forest fires, handle firearms, have survival experience in extreme weather conditions, and be willing to work long hours with no overtime pay. From a salary of $1,000 a year, they were expected to buy their own food and bedding – and to pay $45 for a specially designed uniform topped by a distinctive flat-brimmed hat.

Despite all the requirements, so many men inquired about ranger positions at Yellowstone that Albright issued a daunting form letter response. "If you cannot work hard ten or twelve hours a day, and always with patience and a smile on your face," he warned, "don't fill out the attached blank."

The rangers all looked up to Stephen Mather. He once gave a ranger travel money to make a cross-country trip to visit his parents, and occasionally treated rangers and their wives to meals at fancy restaurants. In Yosemite, he spent $25,000 of his own money to build the Rangers' Club House – and took to staying there himself whenever he visited the park.

Mather was so impressed by an educational nature program run by two college professors at a resort at Lake Tahoe that he paid to have it transferred to Yosemite. Soon, guided nature walks and campfire lectures by "ranger naturalists" were offered in every national park. They became one of the Park Service's most popular programs and promoted the image of friendly professionalism Mather was trying to create.

Although most of the rangers were men, there were also a few women. At age 14, Clare Marie Hodges had ridden horseback for four days to visit Yosemite with her family. Four years later, she became the Park Service's first woman ranger. At Yellowstone, Isabel Bassett Wasson, a Brooklyn native with a master's degree in geology, gave lectures at three different locations each day.

To supplement the educational programs, museums were started in each park, with exhibits explaining various aspects of the terrain. Mather himself insisted on wearing a ranger's uniform whenever he visited a park. To boost the rangers' public image, he encouraged Albright to publish a book entitled Oh, Ranger! – a collection of humorous anecdotes about life in the parks.


Horace Kephart first came to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee in 1904, and soon started campaigning to save the forests that were being systematically stripped away by lumber companies. He was joined in his efforts to create a national park by George Masa, a Japanese immigrant who spent his time photographing the Great Smokies. 


Stephen Mather supported their cause and in 1926, Congress authorized the creation of Great Smokey Mountains National Park. There was one catch: Congress insisted that money to buy the land come entirely from the states or private donations. Local people – churchgoers, hotel bellhops, children raiding their piggybanks – rallied to the cause, but it was uncertain whether the required $10 million could be raised before the Great Smokies were completely logged.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. came to the rescue when he offered the remaining $5 million that was desperately being sought. But with the Great Depression devastating the country, people were unable to fulfill many of the pledges they had made to create the park. Inspired by the contributions of ordinary people, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided to intervene, allocating $1.5 million in scarce federal funds to complete the land purchases. On June 15, 1934, the park was officially established. It was the first time in history that the United States government had spent its own money to buy land for a national park.


Ralph Henry Cameron had fought against Mather and Albright in their bid to create the Grand Canyon National Park. When he lost, Cameron carried on as if nothing had changed, and refused to remove his buildings. Now a U.S. senator, he used his political power to ensure no action was taken against him.

When Cameron proposed two giant hydroelectric dams and a platinum mine within the park, Stephen Mather set out to stop him and other developers who were planning dams at other national parks. The recently enacted Federal Water Power Act specifically allowed for these dams; Mather, who considered the flooding of Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley to have been a great travesty, was determined that it would never happen again.

Mather and Albright wrote memos objecting to the Federal Water Power Act, but they were torn up by, Interior Secretary Franklin K. Lane, who was squarely on the side of the dam builders. When surveyors showed up in Yellowstone to inspect a basin for a series of dams, Albright ordered the wooden trail bridges removed so that the surveyors could not cross the rivers.

Meanwhile, Mather galvanized public support through a public relations campaign. The resulting outcry soon put a stop to the proposed dams and all of Cameron's projects in the Grand Canyon.

Furious, Cameron denounced Mather on the Senate floor and instigated a congressional investigation, but when Arizona voters refused to return him to office in 1926, he finally lost control of his Grand Canyon empire. At Bright Angel Trail, the toll gate was removed, so the people who actually owned the park could freely use it.

Among those who would use the Bright Angel Trail was an adventurous couple whose attempt to travel down the Colorado River in 1928 would end in tragedy.


When he became superintendent of Yellowstone in 1919, Horace Albright made it his personal mission to expand the park southward to include the Teton Range and the valley next to it in Wyoming, called Jackson Hole. He had first seen the stunning series of granite spires and the sparkling Snake River when taking a day trip with Stephen Mather to inspect the progress of a new road. Both men were flabbergasted by the magnificent scenery.

Back in 1882, General Phillip Sheridan had wanted Yellowstone Park enlarged to include the natural grazing range of the world's largest surviving elk herd. The Tetons and surrounding lowlands were an essential part of the elk's migratory home, and conservationists hoped to include them in a "Greater Yellowstone."

As superintendent, Albright promoted his cause to every dignitary who visited Yellowstone. Congressmen, journalists, and two presidents were all taken to view the Tetons, while Albright passionately explained his vision.

One day in 1924, Albright learned that the great philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., traveling incognito, was about to visit Yellowstone. Rockefeller's generosity had been instrumental in creating Acadia National Park, and Albright was delighted to learn of his imminent visit – until he received a letter from Stephen Mather asking him not to disturb Rockefeller's privacy by lobbying him about the Tetons.

Two years later, in 1926, Rockefeller returned to the park and this time Mather did not issue the same warning. Albright took the first opportunity to drive Rockefeller and his wife to Jackson Hole. When they stopped to watch the sunset, Albright revealed his dream for preserving the area. Rockefeller listened in silence. "I felt a little let down," Albright wrote. "Here I had laid out my fondest dream, and there was no word of comment."

But Albright's disappointment turned into elation when, four months later, he was invited to Rockefeller's New York office to discuss the Tetons again. This time he showed Rockefeller detailed maps and cost estimates for a modest plan to purchase some of the land near Jackson Lake. The philanthropist interrupted, saying his family was only interested in "an ideal project." He wanted to pursue the more ambitious dream that Albright had described earlier.

Albright went back to work and soon presented a grander proposal to buy up more than 30,000 acres for over a million dollars. Rockefeller immediately agreed to it all, and two years later Congress created a small Grand Teton National Park.

Albright and Rockefeller were disappointed that the boundaries included only the eastern front of the mountains themselves and none of the surrounding valley. Rockefeller continued quietly buying up land, giving Albright hope that his dream might one day be realized.


In 1928, yearly visitation at the national parks topped 3 million for the first time. "The parks...have become democratized," Stephen Mather declared, and in many ways he was right. Park visitors no longer came exclusively from the upper classes. They now represented the new, expanding but predominantly white middle class – Americans with their own cars and more money in their pockets.


Congress, too, seemed more willing to support the park system. It more than doubled annual appropriations, although most of the money was for improving roads to accommodate the influx of car-driving tourists.

Mather embraced an ambitious plan to have one major road in each park that would open up its scenic wonders to the motoring public. At Glacier National Park, a road was proposed to climb through the mountains over Logan Pass. Mather took a personal interest in its design, championing a longer, more expensive road that would not detract from the view. The result was the awe-inspiring Going-to-the-Sun Road.

From then on, Mather insisted that landscape architects oversee every detail of national park roads. Throughout the system, the entire park experience was being redesigned. Scenic turnouts, rest stops, new maps and guidebooks were all geared towards the motoring tourist.


Not everyone agreed with Mather's aggressive road policy. Among the dissenters was Robert Sterling Yard, head of the National Parks Association, a group that Mather had helped create to bolster the parks movement. Yard had worked for Mather to promote the parks, but he now worried that all the provisions for "motor tourists" were overwhelming the park ideal of providing inspiration and "elevation of the spirit." Like John Muir, Yard wanted to keep the parks as pristine as possible.

Yard also opposed Mather when Mammoth Cave and Shenandoah National Park were set aside. He felt that they did not meet "national park standards;" the Virginia site was too small and lacked "primitive" forests, and no one from the Park Service had even visited Mammoth Cave.

Hoping to start a movement to "preserve the primitive," Yard joined forces with conservationist Aldo Leopold, forester Bob Marshall, and other like-minded people. They formed the Wilderness Society and their mission was to protect pristine lands not just from developers, but from the Park Service itself.

Mather was not happy to have his old friend questioning his judgment. It was a bitter surprise for him when Yard and the National Parks Association came out against his proposal to enlarge Sequoia and General Grant (now Kings Canyon) national parks.


Meanwhile, Mather could always count on Horace Albright. No one in the Park Service admired Mather more, or was more privy to the director's periodic wild mood swings. At least two more times in the 1920s, Mather was incapacitated by depression, while Albright quietly filled in.

In 1927, on his way back from inspecting Hawai'i National Park, Mather suffered a heart attack. But a month later he was in Yosemite, hiking to Glacier Point to prove to his doctor that he was back at full strength. Resuming his busy schedule, he went to Mount Rainier to go over plans for a new road, attended the opening of a lodge on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and checked on the progress of a tunnel being blasted through the sandstone at Zion.

On July 4, 1928, he celebrated his 61st birthday in his favorite park, Yosemite. He was delighted to learn that his efforts to bring attention to the plight of an endangered grove of privately owned giant sugar pines had prompted John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to buy the land and donate it to Yosemite.

Then, on November 5, 1928, Mather suffered a stroke that left him seriously incapacitated. Albright was sworn in as the second director of the National Park Service on January 12, 1929. A year later, on January 22, 1930, Stephen Mather died.

In his memory, a mountain just east of Mount McKinley would be named Mount Mather; an overlook at the Grand Canyon would be called Mather Point; a scenic stretch of the Potomac River would be named Mather Gorge; a nationwide tree-planting campaign in his honor would result in Mather Forest near Lake George.

And in every national park, the National Park Service erected a bronze plaque with his likeness and these words: "There will never come an end to the good that he has done."