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Stephen T. Mather

1867 - 1930
Stephen Mather, First Director of U.S. National Park Service  
  • Founding Director of the U.S. National Park Service. Mather is widely recognized for his efforts to preserve the national parks from private exploitation and to make them serve the high purposes for which they were designed. He dedicated to himself to public service after a successful career as a borax mining executive, during which he established the copyright for the 20 Mule Team logo that is still to be found on boxes of Borax.
  • There is the traditional story of how Mather came to Washington to run the National parks, which Horace Albright later said was wrong, though he had a part in keeping the story alive. Here's the traditional, if incorrect, story:
    In 1914, Mather observed the deteriorating conditions in several National Parks, and wrote a letter of protest to Washington. Soon he received a reply from Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane, a former classmate of Mather's from the University of California. Lane responded, "Dear Steve, If you don't like the way the parks are being run, come on down to Washington and run them yourself."
    But in later years, Mather's assistant Horace Albright was to state:
    In reality, they didn't know each other. Mather had graduated from the University of California with a Bachelor of Letters degree in 1887. Although registered in the class of 1889, Lane never did graduate. Adolph Miller, who knew both men quite well, graduated in Mather's class and affirmed that the two were not personally acquainted until 1914.
    Mather did nonetheless go to Washington as an assistant secretary of the Interior, and lobbied for the establishment of a bureau to operate the national parks. On August 25, 1916, President Wilson signed the bill authorizing the National Park Service. In April of 1917, Stephen T. Mather was appointed as its first director, a position he filled until he resigned due to illness in January, 1929. During the course of his career, he and his staff molded the NPS into one of the most highly respected and prestigious arms of the federal government. Special credit is owing Horace M. Albright, another Sierra Club member, who served as assistant to Stephen Mather, and acting director during Mr. Mather's several illnesses.
  • Stephen Mather joined the Sierra Club in 1904, when the Club and John Muir was at the height of their campaign to recede Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove, then in state hands, to the surrounding Yosemite National Park. The next year Mather joined the Sierra Club on its annual outing in 1905 to climb Mount Rainier. According to Albright, "During this climb, he became good friends with Will Colby, Joseph [N.] Le Conte, and others with like interests in the Sierra Club, as well as members of the Mazamas, a similar organization of the Northwest. Through discussions around the campfire at night, the faith, devotion, and philosophy of these associates of John Muir made a deep impression on him." Mather delighted in hiking and camping in the mountains throughout his life. In 1916, Mather was appointed as an Honorary Vice-President of the Sierra Club.
  • Mather biographer Robert Shankland claims that in 1912, while on a family trip in the wild Kern River Canyon country, Mather met up with the Sierra Club Outing that year, and there met John Muir in person. However, according to a Sierra Club Bulletin article about the 1912 outing, "a letter of greeting from John Muir was read" at the beginning of the trip, which strongly suggests that Muir did not actually go on this Outing and so would not have met Mather on this trip. But according to Horace Albright: "One of the highlights of Mather's life was the opportunity to have a long talk with the legendary Muir, whose whole life at this time was devoted to fighting the Hetch Hetchy dam. To save this twin of the Yosemite Valley from flooding simply to provide a never-ending source of water for the city of San Francisco was the flame of Muir's passion, which caught fire in Mather. Muir had also interested him in another of his vital concerns - the addition of vast majestic Sierra areas to Sequoia National Park or, better still, the creation of a new park between Yosemite and Sequoia. Mather picked up that banner too." Later, in 1916, Mather was appointed as an Honorary Vice-President of the Sierra Club.
    Sources: "The Kern River Outing of 1912" by Frederic Bruce Johnstone and Elsie Leale Johnstone, Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. IX, No. 1, January, 1913, p. 16; Creating the National Park Service: The Missing Years by Horace M. Albright and Marian Albright Schenck. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman (1999), p. 33.

  • After Mather's death, the Sierra Club Bulletin published this tribute to Mather:
    "With the passing of Stephen T. Mather on January 22, 1930, the Sierra Club has lost one of its most beloved members. For twenty-five years or more he was an active member of the club. In 1905 he stood on the summit of Mount Rainier as one of our outing party; in 1912 he was with us at our camp-fires in the Kern; time and again he joined our gatherings in the cities as well as in the mountains. When he went to Washington in 1915 to take charge of administering the national parks he turned first of all to the Sierra Club for support of his program. Always in his work for the parks he made a point of identifying himself with us - not as an honorary vice-president, but as a plain member. His public work has already received something of the recognition it deserves, and as time goes on his name will remain inseparably associated with the national parks. We would fain join in the praise accorded his public work, and at another time we hope to do so in a fitting manner. But for the moment we prefer to hold in our thoughts imply the memory of an ardent and lovable comrade who was lately in our midst. F.P.F."

    Source: Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. XV, No. 1, February, 1930, p. 98. A longer illustrated memorial published in the Sierra Club Bulletin is found in Vol. XVI, No. 1, February, 1931, "Stephen T. Mather, 1867-1930" by Francis P. Farquhar.

    • A bronze plaque dedicated to his memory has been placed in many national parks:
      He laid the foundation of the National Park Service, defining and establishing the policies under which its areas shall be developed and conserved unimpaired for future generations. There will never come an end to the good that he has done.
    • More information:
      • Stephen Mather - NWF Conservation Hall of Fame
      • Stephen Mather Biography National Park Service
      • Creating the National Park Service: The Missing Years by Horace M. Albright and Marian Albright Schenck. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman (1999)
      • Steve Mather of the Park Service by Robert Shankland. Knopf (1951-Revised 1970)
      • Pinchot and Mather: How the Forest Service and the Park Service got That Way, by Harold W. Wood, Jr., Not Man Apart (Friends of the Earth), (Mid-December, 1976) Reprinted in Federal Public Land and Resources Law, Third Edition, by George Cameron Coggins, Charles F. Wilkinson.

    Portrait photo of Stephen Mather courtesy of the National Park Service.

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