Recipient Biography

Stephen Tyng Mather


Stephen Tyng Mather (1867-1930) received the Pugsley Gold Medal in 1928. He was the founding director of the National Park Service in 1916. Prior to his involvement with NPS, he was an influential industrialist who had become personally wealthy from his involvement with Twenty Mule Team Borax. Unlike many of the early twentieth-century conservationists who became leaders in America's budding natural-resource agencies. Steve Mather came from neither a government nor a science background.

Born in San Francisco in 1867, he went on to attend the University of California before becoming a journalist. But after working for five years as a reporter for The New York Sun, he quit to join his father in the borax business. Borax is a commodity and, as such, one brand is essentially as good as another: in order for a company to be successful, it had to mine the product more cheaply, process it more efficiently, or market it more aggressively. The younger Mather soon earned a reputation as an advertising and promotions wiz, creating the famous 20-mule-team-borax branding logo for the company, which made the product a household name. An aggressive businessman, he became wealthy within a decade and by the time he was in his mid-forties, he had retired from the company to pursue other interests.

Mather was a dedicated conservationist, a member of the Sierra Club, and friend and admirer of John Muir; and an avid mountain climber. On a trip through Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks in 1914 he was shocked by the conditions he found. Upon returning to his home in Chicago, Mather wrote Secretary Franklin Lane a highly critical report on the mismanagement of the national parks. He and Lane were friends from their student days at the University of California. Quite succinctly Lane responded, "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." That challenge prompted Mather to come to Washington to see Lane who offered him a job as assistant to the secretary to oversee the parks.

But Mather, then 47, had never worked in the government and had no intention of doing so. Lane pressed the case, "I can't offer you rank or fame or salary -- only a chance to do some great public service." When Lane agreed to give Mather a young assistant, Horace Albright, to handle the myriad bureaucratic details, Mather agreed to accept the job for one year. When he arrived in Washington, he was "a figure larger than life -- tall, blue eyed, ally of avant-garde poetry, a man of 'colossal popularity' in the business world, an 'alloy of drive and amiability.' " His job was to figure out how to best handle the gnawing complaints of park entities that Congress had designated, making recommendations to Congress on how they should be managed and organized.

Subsequently, Mather was persuaded to stay on as the NPS's first director. At the time Mather came to Washington, the parks were administered by the department that administered the land on which they were created. Thus, many of the parks including Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Sequoia, were administered by the Army. Those that were not had politically appointed superintendents so there was no professionalism in their management and they were widely dispersed among federal agencies.

Periodically, his strenuous work load, constant travel, and pressures from all sides overwhelmed Mather and led to breakdowns. During these periods, Albright guided the fledgling NPS. Mather was subsequently succeeded by Albright, so their joint philosophy was the foundation on which the NPS was built. Although many organizations have founder myths in which their first directors are viewed as nearly superhuman, the Service's high regard for its early leadership seems justified by the actual accomplishments of Mather and Albright. The two men had the array of problems facing any new agency plus some which were unique to the Park Service. They solved them and the solutions they worked out were to be a source of strength and guidance to the agency long after they left it.

Mather realized that Congress was not going to authorize adequate funding until the American people demanded it and that the people would not do much demanding until they had been introduced to the parks. Thus, the first task was to publicize the parks and promote American tourism. With no government funds to use, Mather reached into its own pocket to offer Robert Sterling Yard, an old friend from the Sun, a position as the national parks' publicity chief. Yard succumbed to Mather's persuasive charm and became one of the parks' most avid supporters.

In making the parks known across the country, this veteran newsman and editor helped immensely, particularly through several illustrated books. National Parks Portfolio, a fancy and expensive volume published in 1916, was underwritten by western railroads that Mather had approached for funds. The first 275,000 copies were sent gratis to the country's most important leaders of opinion, and the favorable response exceeded Mather's highest hopes.

Mather initiated efforts to build comfortable lodges and good roads in parks, and railroad and road access to the parks, to attract the increasing number of automobile drivers who took to the highways after World War I. He also made personal loans to concessionaires for improvements to facilities. Mather's personal financing of the agency's operations was not limited to concessions. For a number of years, he also paid nearly half the salaries of upper-level staff and bought additional parklands out of money form his own pocket in an era when the agency's annual budget was only $20,000.

To a surprising degree, Mathers managed to operate free of congressional or presidential control. And he had unusual success in winning the cooperation of large businesses, such as the railroads, and in procuring generous donations of land and money from private citizens. Yet he would tolerate any action by private enterprise that married the beauty of a park. For example, he blocked construction of a proposed cableway across the Grand Canyon, and he personally directed and watched the destruction of an unsightly sawmill that the Great Northern Railroad had delayed removing from Glacier National Park.

Mather was a dynamic and powerful businessman, unwilling to be wrapped in red tape. He was described as "a man of prodigious and explosive energy, a tireless worker, a born leader, and a live-wire type!" He was six-foot-one and handsome and he lived his life fully and with intensity. He was a man of considerable wealth who came from a solid New England family, and he commanded respect on both counts. He was a superb, imaginative salesman for his ideas, and his energy and enthusiasm, once engaged, seemed boundless. His most important asset to his agency, however, was probably 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.

Perhaps nothing illustrates his mix of skills and the free-wheeling style of leadership to which it gave rise better than the backwoods Yosemite expedition he organized for a select group of influential men during the campaign to establish the Park Service. His guests included a vice-president of the southern Pacific Railroad, the editor of National Geographic, the president of the American Museum of Natural History, and a congressman who was later to become the Speaker of the House. The aim of the expedition was to give them a good time, impress them with the beauties of the national park, and, not incidentally, persuade them to use their influence on behalf of the upcoming legislation to establish the Park Service. Augmented by cooks, guides, and aides of every sort, the group traveled in rustic splendor and was feted with backwoods haute cuisine, which included venison and gravy, fried chicken, hot rolls, salad, and freshly made pies. Coming upon icy waterfalls from snow-covered watersheds, Mather would leap from his horse, throw off his clothes and cavort in the "free shower" -- and this he did four or more times a day! Up early in the morning, he would awaken his colleagues to the tune of air whistling out of their air-mattresses and the jarring tom-tom of the camp's cooking pots. This field trip, and the many others like it which Mather organized, resulted in loyal, life-long friendships and support from influential people. This expedition was a great success; many of Mather's guests put their support behind the legislation and some became lifelong friends of the Park Service.

Mather's challenge was to build the park system, establish a professional ranger/manager corps free of the taint of patronage, partisan politics, and ward off the thrusts of the miners, loggers and grazers who would compromise and destroy their beloved parks. To a remarkable degree he and Albright succeeded. At the root of this success was their ability to fashion a set of policies for the Park system and a range of responsibilities for the Park Service which at the same time established a favorable public attitude toward the two, gave them appreciative clients and strong backers, and assured their survival.

For the great natural areas of the system, Mather and Albright worked out policies which were successful on several levels. By opening up the parks to the public at large, they made the Park Service an agent of modern society; they provided America with the Great Destination as the annual vacation became part of the rhythm of its life. At the same time they gained the support of those who made their living off these larger and larger annual migrations. By resisting resource exploitation in the parks, they became heirs to John Muir and the preservationist wing of the conservation movement. The great sites under the control of the NPS would be preserved for their aesthetic and spiritual value. Thus in its policies toward the great parks, the agency was at the same time a booster, a professional land manager, and a priest of American nature worship. Although it was not quite the problem it would later become, it was no mean feat to steer a safe course between preservation and mass use, between boosterism and professionalism, and between the lowest of park taste and the most refined.

Born on July 4th (an appropriate date for a fervent patriot), Mather was sixty years old in 1927; his bureau was beginning to function well, and he seemed as full of drive and ideas as ever. Most recently he had convinced Congress of the wisdom of extending the national park concept into the East, and in 1926 Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks were authorized. But in 1928 he suffered a paralytic stroke.

Mather's epitaph was spoken in a congressional eulogy, "There will never come an end to the good that he has done." It went on to note that Mather "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." As a memorial to him those words were inscribed, with his profile, on bronze plaques placed in many of the national parks -- despite his known aversion to such intrusions on the park scene. In addition, named for him were an Alaskan peak; a highway in the Cascades; a memorial arboretum at the University of California, Berkeley; a forest near Lake George, New York; and a scenic gorge on the Potomac River below the Great Falls.

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Hartzog, G.B. (1988). Battling for the national parks. Mt Kisco, New York: Moyer Ball.
Everhart, William C. (1983). The National Park Service. Boulder, Colorado: Washview Press.
Strong, Douglas H. (1988) Dreamers and defenders: American conservationists. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.