Happy 97th Birthday to the National Park Service

On August 25th, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act which created a new agency within the Department of the Interior called the National Park Service.  At this point, the Department of the Interior was struggling to manage 14 national parks and 21 national monuments.  The task was becoming too daunting and thus a the new agency was created with the sole responsibility:

“to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

In honor of the National Park Service’s birthday, I decided to write a short post about the first director of the National Park Service: Stephen T. Mather.

Portrait of Stephen T. Mather from 1916

Stephen T. Mather grew up in California and attended Berkeley before moving to New York City after graduation. After some time in New York, Mather became as a successful businessman in Chicago. Mather was involved in various borax mining companies before founding his own borax company called Thorkildsen-Mather Borax Company.  His new company made him a millionaire.

A trip to Europe in 1904 inspired Mather to become more dedicated to preserving natural areas in the United States.  While traveling with his wife, Mather noticed that many European countries had series of nationally protects parks and/or preserves that were open to the public. Mather felt that the United States could benefit from a similar system.

Upon returning from his trip to Europe, Mather became a member of the Sierra Club and made friends with, co-founder of the club, John Muir. Through his activities with the Sierra Club, Mather was able to see the terrible management that was occurring in the National Parks – including Yosemite.  In 1914, Mather traveled to Washington to lobby for better protection of the parks and spoke about creating a centralized bureau to manage the national parks and national monuments.

Stephen T. Mather (far left) at the dedication of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1925

Once arriving in Washington, Mather became the Assistant Secretary of the Interior. Three years later in April 1917, he became the first director of the National Park Service with Horace M. Albright as his assistant director. Mather served as director until illness forced him to resign in 1929. Mather died in 1930.

After his death, the National Park service installed bronze plaques in many of the National Park units with the following quote:

“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.”

Look for one of these plaques the next time you visit a national park unit.

Mather’s Plaque in Mt. Rainier National Park


PBS The National Parks: Stephen Mather

The National Park Service: Stephen T. Mather

The Sierra Club: Stephen T. Mather


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