Stephen Mather

Stephen Mather

Stephen Tyng Mather was the founding Director of the National Park Service and an early supporter of state parks. It was said that he “sacrificed his money, his health, his time, his opportunities for wealth, in order that he might promote that which will mean so much to the people of this country in the future.”1

Born in San Francisco, California in 1867, Mather graduated from University of California at Berkeley in 1887 before moving to the East Coast to be a journalist for the New York Sun.2 After five years he joined his father at the Thorkildsen-Mather Borax Company as a marketing and sales manager.3 Mather created the 20 Mule Team Borax branding logo for the company which is still in use a hundred years later. He then assisted in founding a competing borax company from which he became a millionaire.4 By 1914 he had retired at the age of 47.

Previously in 1904, Mather had joined the Sierra Club and climbed Mount Rainier with them the following year. As a mountain climber, hiker, and conservationist, he met John Muir and other naturalist leaders and shared their passion for preserving the outdoors. Later, in 1916, he was appointed an Honorary Vice-President of the club.5

After a trip through the Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks in 1914 he was dissatisfied with the conditions he saw in the parks. Accordingly, he wrote a critical report to Secretary of Interior Franklin K. Lane whose department included the fledgling park system.6 The famous reply from Lane was, “Dear Steve: If you don't like the way the national parks are run, why don't you come on down to Washington and run them yourself.”7

When he arrived in Washington he was offered the job of overseeing the parks as an assistant to Lane. It was a position without “rank or fame or salary,” a position Lane characterized as “a chance to do some great public service.”8 It would be his first position within the government, and Mather was given an assistant, Horace Albright, to manage the bureaucratic details. On those conditions, Mather accepted the position for one year.

At this time the administration of the parks was scattered among different departments, depending on who held the land. Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Sequoia were among many parks that were overseen by the Army, while other parks were managed by politically appointed superintendents.9 Mather began by lobbying for a separate bureau dedicated to the professional management of all national parks. Two years later in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Raker-Kent-Smoot Bill to create the National Park Service.10 The following year Mather was appointed the Director, a position he held for the next 12 years.

One of the first steps to acquiring funding from Congress for the National Park Service was to sell the public on the need for national parks. He began with hiring Robert Sterling Yard, a fellow journalist from the New York Sun, to publicize the parks and promote annual vacations in the parks. In 1916 Yard wrote the National Parks Portfolio, an illustrated book that was financed by western railroads and sent free to 275,000 leaders and opinion-makers. The resulting support for parks was furthered by the improvements to the park roads and access via the railroads. Mather also supported concessionaires within the parks and the building of comfortable lodges for visitors.

Initial funding for supplementing the department staff's salaries, park improvements, and publicity came from Mather's personal wealth and the corporations, railroads, and private citizens influenced by his passion. He was known as a “superb, imaginative salesman for his ideas” and for his “ability to establish close, easy peer relationships with some of the nation's most influential men, relationships which turned many of them into fast friends of the Park Service.”11 Many new park lands were added through these partnerships.

Mather, with Albright as his assistant, only accepted new park land that had magnificent and unique scenery or historical significance which could be well supported by users.12 They preserved vistas, encouraged “nature study,” and the strategic placement of park developments. They also established a standard of professional management in all the national parks and protected the parks from the encroachments of mining, ranching, and logging.

After five years of directing the National Park Service, Mather extended his vision to encouraging a system of state parks. In 1921 he gathered 200 conservationists to discuss “the idea of state participation in the all-American system of parks.”13 This led to the creation of the National Conference on State Parks which furthered the establishment of state parks systems.

Up until 1926, the national park movement was solely in the West. Mather convinced Congress to extend the system to the East and they added the Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains national parks. After 12 years of service, Mather had facilitated nearly doubling the acreage of the national parks which were now located throughout America.14

Periodically during his tenure as Director, Mather suffered from depression episodes that occasionally required hospitalization. Albright quietly filled in during these absences. In 1928 Mather had a paralytic stroke and in January of 1929 he resigned due to his health challenges.15 One year later he died at the age of 62. In memorial, bronze plaques were place in national parks with the following tribute to Mather: “There will never come an end to the good that he has done.”16

  • 1. “Stephen Tyng Mather, Cornelius Amory Pugsley Gold Medal Award, 1928.” AAPRA. < > 20 Sep. 2012.
  • 2. “Stephen Mather (1867-1930).” PBS. < > 20 Sep. 2012.
  • 3. Swift, William. “Stephen T. Mather, 1867-1930.” National Park Service. < > 20 Sep. 2012.
  • 4. Op.cit., “Stephen Mather (1867-1930).” PBS.
  • 5. “Stephen T. Mather.” Sierra Club < > 20 Sep. 2012.
  • 6. Note: It was widely said that Mather and Lane were classmates at University of California, a fact which was later disproved. Op.cit., “Stephen T. Mather.” Sierra Club.
  • 7. Op.cit., “Stephen Tyng Mather.”
  • 8. Op.cit., “Stephen Tyng Mather.”
  • 9. Op.cit., “Stephen Tyng Mather.”
  • 10. “Stephen Mather.” National Wildlife Federation. < > 20 Sep. 2012.
  • 11. Op.cit., “Stephen Tyng Mather.”
  • 12. Op.cit., Swift.
  • 13. Butler, George D. Pioneers in Public Recreation. Minneapolis, MN:Burgess Publishing Company, 1965. pp. 204-205.
  • 14. Op.cit., “Stephen Mather.” National Wildlife Federation.
  • 15. Op.cit., “Stephen Tyng Mather.”
  • 16. Op.cit., “Stephen Mather (1867-1930).” PBS.