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B&C Member Spotlight - Stephen Mather

Even though he suffered from severe mental illness, early Boone and Crockett Club member Stephen Mather led a crusade to create the National Park Service, where he eventually served as the agency's first director. This is the abbreviated story of a most fascinating American.

By PJ DelHomme 
A trip to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in the early 1900s was the catalyst for Mather's journey to become the first director of the National Park Service.

Born on the fourth of July in San Francisco in 1867, Stephen Mather was a charismatic master of marketing. He also loved climbing peaks in the great outdoors. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, he moved across the country to New York where he worked as a reporter for the New York Sun. Unable to support his growing family on a reporter’s salary, he turned to household cleaners and marketing where he would make a fortune. 

Thanks to his father’s connections, Mather became the advertising and sales manager for the Pacific Coast Borax Company. Borax, used in laundry detergent and household cleaners, had been hauled out of the California desert first by mules, then by rail. Knowing this, Mather persuaded company officials to give their product more identity by adding the “20 Mule Team” slogan to the label. In addition, Mather wrote letters to the editors of various magazines posing as a housewife extolling the virtues of borax. As a result, sales took off. 


In 1903, though, Mather’s severe bipolar disorder (manic depression) forced him to miss an extended period of work, and his pay was withheld. He resigned and started his own borax company with a partner. Using his knack for marketing and business acumen, Mather was a multi-millionaire by 1914. Essentially retired at 47, Mather shifted his energy and expertise to protecting the landscapes he loved. 

A Grand Idea 

Long before Mather made his millions, he ventured afield. He climbed Mount Rainier in 1905 and traveled to what is now Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. He joined the Sierra Club of California where he was inspired by the preservationist John Muir. 

In 1914, there were nine official national parks, many of which were managed by separate agencies with various priorities. When Mather visited Sequoia and Yosemite National Park, he found cattle grazing in the meadows and loggers eye-balling the giant sequoias. He was appalled at the dismal conditions of trails and facilities as well. Mather wrote to Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane. 

In January 1915, Mather found himself in Washington in front of Secretary Lane who offered him the job of assistant to the Secretary of the Interior. At first, Mather wasn’t thrilled with all the rules and regulations inherent with government work. Lane understood and offered Mather the best assistant he could ever hope to have, a 24-year-old fellow Californian named Horace Albright. 

Mather wanted one agency to oversee the parks, and he didn’t want it to be the War Department or the Department of Agriculture. To rally support for his idea, Mather signed a personal blank check and threw a party at the Palace Hotel in Visalia, California. From there, the revelers traveled to some of California’s most scenic, wild, and unprotected places. This elaborate 10-day camping trip is known as the Mather Mountain Party—and what a party it was.

The Mather Mountain Party 

The party’s guest list was packed with influencers of the day, including fellow Boone and Crockett member and president of the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Zoological Society Henry Fairlfied Osborn. There were attorneys, electrical engineers, newspaper reporters, physicians, and so many more. Two campers of note: Congressman Frederick H. Gillett of Massachusetts, ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee and Gilbert S. Grosvenor, director of the National Geographic Society and editor of its magazine.

NPS director Stephen Mather sitting at the head of the table during his "Mather Mountain Party" to get support for the National Park Service in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. Courtesy NPS.

This was a party in every sense of the word, and Mather seized upon every chance to show the men a good time. “After our midday meal, Mather suddenly jumped up, stripped, and leaped into the icy waters of a nearby stream,” Albright wrote. “Challenging the party as ‘chickens’ and caroling out some appropriate ‘Buc, Buc, Bucs,’ he lured in a few brave souls…”

Mather spared no expense. The party enjoyed elaborate meals prepared by Chinese cooks of the U.S. Geological Survey, Ty Sing and his assistant Eugene. They went fishing, hiking, and soaking. “The previous day Congressman Gillett had discovered a wonderful hot spring,” wrote Albright. “Here a suitable-size bathtub had been dug out of the ooze, allowing Gillett to soak for hours while the 115-degree water bubbled over him.” 

“This was one of the greatest adventures of my life and one that had an enormous impact on the history of the National Park Service.” 

In short, Mather knew that words alone could not convince his audience to protect the wonder and beauty of the natural places he loved. Using his own money, Mather was able to show all those in attendance what might be lost if it wasn’t saved. When Congressman Gillet became head of the House Appropriations Committee, he became a defender of the parks and Mather’s desire for an agency to oversee them. Thanks to Grosvenor’s position, National Geographic devoted an entire issue to the national parks in April 1916. 

Then on May 10, Mather’s close friend, Representative William Kent, introduced legislation to establish a National Park Service. It took a little more than four months for HR 15522 to land on the desk of President Woodrow Wilson. On August 25, President Wilson created a National Park Service, which would oversee 35 national parks and monuments already created, as well as those created in the future. Undoubtedly, as Albright notes, “The publicity about the mountain party, through newspapers and magazines, focused attention on the parks and the need for a national park service.”  

Peaks and Valleys 

With the newly created agency, there was only one person to run it. Actually, there were two: Stephen Mather and his loyal assistant Albright. But before Mather and Albright could begin work on organizing the new agency, things would turn dark. At a conference in 1917, Mather’s behavior was erratic, according to an article in Psychology Today. As emcee for the conference, he would disappear entirely, only to reappear seemingly energized. By the end of the conference, Albright found Mather rocking back and forth in a room, moaning and crying. Eventually, he sprinted for the doors, yelling that he couldn’t live this way any longer. 

Stephen Mather (left), the first director of the National Park Service, was photographed with his assistant, Horace Albright, at Yellowstone in the 1920s.

Mather received treatment for more than a year. During that period he twice attempted suicide. Wild places always seemed to calm him, and he sought the soothing waters of Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, which became a national park during his tenure as director from 1917-1929. In his absence, Albright served as acting director of the agency. 

When Mather returned to work, he did so with that same enthusiasm and energy as before. With a brimming bank account, he spent plenty of his own money to fulfill his vision of both protecting and marketing the parks. He spent $8,000 ($220,000 in 2022) for a chunk of land on which to build the headquarters of Glacier National Park. He bought a sequoia grove for $50,000 ($1 million in 2022) and then gave it to Sequoia National Park. At one public rally, he got so caught up in donating money that he offered up $15,000 of Representative Kent’s money. 

The famous Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park was just one leg of Mather's Park-to-Park Highway project. 

Mather desperately wanted to share his beloved parks with the masses. He understood that tourists needed both access to these places and suitable accommodations once they arrived. Mather orchestrated the Park-to-Park Highway project, a network of roads connecting numerous parks across the West and Northwest, including Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. In addition, he dropped low-budget concessioners from park contracts, replacing them with others who had the financial backing to build grand hotels with more inviting rooms and dining. 

By 1928, Mather had given all he could, and his health was on the decline. In November, he suffered a stroke, which paralyzed him, including his speech. In early 1929, Mather resigned. Horace Albright, who was the superintendent at Yellowstone National Park, took the reins as director. Later that year, Mather regained some motor function, and he was able to walk again. Then, in January 1930 he suffered a massive stroke and died. At the end of his tenure, Mather had grown the National Park Service system to include a total of 20 national parks and 32 national monuments. More importantly, he had given a purpose and an identity to the agency that would protect and propagate what is known as America’s best idea.

Member Spotlights

Boone and Crockett Club members have come from a cross-section of famous accomplished people whose lives and careers have written and recorded the history of this country since the late 19th Century. They have been naturalists, scientists, explorers and sportsmen, writers and academicians, artists, statesmen and politicians, generals, bankers, financiers, philanthropists, and industrialists. Their diversity of ideas and activities during their careers have made the Boone and Crockett Club rich in its fellowship and achievements. To read more member spotlights, just click here

PJ DelHomme writes and edits content from his home in western Montana. He runs Crazy Canyon Media and Crazy Canyon Journal

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