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Introduction: In Search of a Cohesive Park System

Construction of the O'Shaughnessy Dam, Hetch Hetchy Valley, Yosemite National Park, 1919 Add to Scrapbook

Construction of the O'Shaughnessy Dam, Hetch Hetchy Valley, Yosemite National Park, 1919

Stephen Mather, circa 1916 Add to Scrapbook

Stephen Mather, circa 1916

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.

Stephen Mather: the Right Man at the Right Time

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.

Advertisement for Twenty Mule Team Borax Add to Scrapbook

Advertisement for Twenty Mule Team Borax

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.

Horace Albright at the Grand Canyon, 1915 Add to Scrapbook

Horace Albright at the Grand Canyon, 1915

Mather's Power of Persuasion

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.

Continued on page 2

A proud tourist points at her National Parks windshield stickers, 1922; David Brower in Glen Canyon, 1966; Dayton Duncan's son, Will, standing at edge of canyon. Bryce Canyon National Park, 1998

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Discover Your National Parks

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For Educators

Check out the lesson plans and other materials for teachers and educators.

Bank of America Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr Fund Corporation for Public Broadcasting The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Park Foundation

National Park Foundation The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation The Pew Charitable TrustsGM

THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA'S BEST IDEA is a co-production of

Florentine Films and WETA

 

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