On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a law creating the National Park Service to manage the country’s 14 national parks and 18 national monuments. Find out more about the self-made millionaire who served as the driving force behind the federal agency and its first director.

Stephen Mather was appalled.

The great outdoors had always been his playground, his salvation. However, after hiking for days through Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in 1914, the self-made millionaire had grown disgusted at the overgrown trails, littered campsites, grazing cows destroying pristine meadows and speculators angling to log giant sequoia trees. As a concerned citizen, Mather fired off a letter of complaint to U.S. Secretary of Interior Franklin K. Lane.

“Dear Steve,” Lane reportedly responded. “If you don’t like the way the parks are being run, come on down to Washington and run them yourself.”

That’s what Mather did.

Stephen Mather
Stephen Mather

Agreeing to work as one of Lane’s assistants overseeing America’s national parks, the native Californian was the right man for the job. The national parks needed a salesman, and Mather was a marketing whiz. After a stint as a reporter for the New York Sun, he had become a sales manager for the Pacific Coast Borax Company. Faced with fierce competition, Mather tapped into the romance of his company’s founding in Death Valley and branded his product “20 Mule Team Borax.” Posing as a housewife, Mather wrote letters to the press extolling the virtues of the new borax brand. Sales exploded, and “20 Mule Team Borax” became a household name.

After leaving to start a competing borax company, the 47-year-old Mather had by 1914 become a millionaire seeking a new challenge, and the national parks held a very personal importance for him. Years earlier, he had discovered that a climb up Mount Rainier had calmed his manic-depression and revived his energy. Hiking the canyons and scaling the mountains of the West were a balm for his bouts of depression. A chance encounter with John Muir in 1912 as he hiked through Sequoia National Park further deepened his desire to protect America’s precious open spaces.

More than 40 years after the 1872 establishment of Yellowstone as the first national park in the United States, America’s national parks remained a haphazard collection of properties managed by an assortment of federal agencies such as the Army and the U.S. Forest Service. Mather employed his wealth and wielded his journalistic, business and political connections to promote America’s national parks and bring them under the management of a single federal agency.

Joshua Tree at sunset.
Joshua Tree at sunset. (Credit: NPS/Brad Sutton)

Mather believed the best way to protect America’s landscapes from destruction was to emphasize their economic potential as tourist attractions. He feared that if people didn’t visit the parks, they could be dismissed by government and commercial interests as disposable resources, as happened to Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy valley, which was permitted by Lane to be flooded for a reservoir. Getting people to visit the parks first meant getting people to the parks. He appealed to the railroad and automotive industries to publicize the parks and make them more accessible.

Mather’s frenetic brain fired a constant fusillade of ideas and rarely fell silent as he continually paced his office. He was a tireless promoter of the parks. In 1915 alone, he traveled nearly 35,000 miles as a hands-on problem solver, firing the incompetent, politically appointed superintendent at Mount Rainier on the spot and lobbying wealthy friends to help him purchase and repair Yosemite’s 56-mile privately held Tioga Road before donating it to the park.

At his own expense, Mather hired former Sun colleague and New York Herald editor Robert Sterling Yard at a $5,000-a-year salary to publicize the parks in America’s newspapers and magazines. With funding provided by Mather and railroad companies, Yard in 1916 helped to produce The National Parks Portfolio, a travelogue that featured spectacular panoramic photographs of the national parks. The paperback version sold nearly 3 million copies in its first year of publication, and Mather sent leather-bound copies to congressmen, chambers of commerce and professional societies across the country to build awareness of the parks.

Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park (Credit: NPS / Kristi Rugg)

“This nation is richer in natural scenery of the first order than any other nation, but it does not know it,” Mather wrote in the book’s introduction. “It possesses an empire of grandeur and beauty which it scarcely has heard of. It owns the most inspiring playgrounds and the best-equipped nature schools in the world and is serenely ignorant of the fact. In its national parks it has neglected, because it has quite overlooked, an economic asset of incalculable value.” Mather’s publicity work paid off as the number of national park visitors tripled from approximately 350,000 in 1916 to more than 1 million in 1920.

Mather had his team craft a bill to establish a separate parks agency inside the U.S. Department of the Interior. For years similar efforts had been blocked by commercial interests, which wanted to harvest the resources in the parks for their own gain, and U.S. Forest Service chief Gifford Pinchot, who sought to literally protect this turf. To make his case, Mather invited a group of 15 businessmen, politicians and editors on a two-week tour of the Sierra Nevadas complete with campsite dinners cooked by a chef and served on fine linen and china.

After bringing the powerful group to the cathedral of the great outdoors, he called on them to be disciples for a new National Park Service. “We must have a National Park Service. Every one of us must pull our oar,” Mather told the group around the campfire on the trip’s final night. “Remember that God has given us these beautiful lands. Try to save them for, and share them with, future generations. Go out and spread the gospel!”

Map of national parks in 1916
Map of national parks in 1916.

Thanks to Mather’s efforts, the measure finally passed in 1916. Appropriately, Mather was not in his office, but hiking in the Sierra Nevadas when Wilson signed the law creating the National Park Service. In 1917 Wilson appointed Mather as the agency’s first director, a position he held until 1929.

As director, Mather is credited with professionalizing the park staff, overseeing an expansion of properties, bringing in concessionaires to provide food and services and creating the first visitor centers. At times, he continued to fund projects on his own dime. Today, many of the 300 million annual visitors to America’s national parks are greeted by landmarks named in his honor, such as Mather Point on the Grand Canyon’s south rim, Camp Mather at Yosemite National Park and Mount Mather in Denali National Park.