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Stephen T. Mather

1867 - 1930

Inducted October 1989

 "The Yosemite, the Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon are national properties in which every citizen has a vested interest; they belong as much to the man of Massachusetts, of Michigan, of Florida, as they do to the people of California, of Wyoming, and of Arizona"
~Stephen T. Mather

Born in San Francisco, Stephen Tyng Mather attended the University of California, Berkeley, before entering a short career in journalism. After working for fi ve years as a reporter for The New York Sun he decided to return to his home state and assist his father in the family borax business. Mather soon earned the reputation as an advertising and promotional genius for the Thorkildsen-Mather Borax Company of Death Valley. Mather created the famous “20 Mule Team Borax” logo, making the product a virtual household name. Mather became wealthy within two decades, and by the time he was in his mid-forties, retired from the company as a millionaire.

Mather often retreated from the city to visit rural areas. He was a dedicated conservationist, a member of the Sierra Club, and friend and admirer of John Muir. On a trip through Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks in 1914, he was shocked by their conditions. Upon returning home, Mather wrote a letter to the Secretary of Interior, Franklin Lane, deploring the conditions he had found while vacationing. Lane responded with a challenge, “Dear Steve: If you don’t like the way the national parks are run, why don’t you come down to Washington and run them yourself ?” This challenge prompted Mather to visit Washington, where Lane offered him a position to oversee the park systems. Mather accepted the position for a one year period, not realizing it would evolve into director of the National Park Service (NPS), a position he would hold for the next 14 years.

As founding director of NPS in 1916, Mather initiated a national campaign to preserve and promote the national parks and monuments. Out of his own pocket, Mather hired Robert Sterling Yard, a former colleague from The New York Sun, to publish the National Parks Portfolio. This publication was instrumental in creating public awareness. He also established park concessionaires to provide basic visitor comforts and services in undeveloped parks. Mather believed having the parks supported by avid users would gain the support of their elected representatives.

Stephen Mather addressing delegates at the 1926 State Park Conference.
National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection

During Mather’s administration, the NPS succeeded in enlarging some parks and adding others to the system, including Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Hawaii, Lafayette (now Acadia), Lassen, Mount McKinley, and Zion. Because of his special interest in increasing parks in the East, the groundwork was laid during Mather’s administration for the eventual incorporation of the Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, and Mammoth Cave national parks. An additional 12 national monuments were added and the total acreage of national parks and monuments increased from 4,751,992 acres to 8,273, 170 acres during the Mather years.

Recognizing that not all areas qualify as national parks, Mather began discussions in 1920 to urge state governments to preserve scenic attractions and natural wonders that were of state importance. In 1921, Mather called together some 200 conservationists in Des Moines, IA, where the group “promugulated the idea of state participation in the all-American system of parks.” The result of this meeting was the formation of the National Conference on State Parks, a predecessor organization to the National Recreation and Park Association. Today, the areas comprising state park systems are among the nation’s outstanding and most widely used recreation resources.

Various places within today’s National Park System are named after Mather, including Mather Point on the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park, Mather District in Yosemite National Park, the Mather Gorge on the border of Great Fall Park and Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park, and the Stephen T. Mather Training Center serving the entire National Park System at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park in West Virginia. Stephen Tyng Mather High School in Chicago, IL. is also named after him, as is the Stephen Mather Memorial Parkway in the Mount Rainier National Park and the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. In 1963 his home in Connecticut, the Stephen Tyng Mather Home, was declared a National Historic National Historic Landmark.

An outstanding park leader and influential conservationist, Stephen Mather was foremost among a group who urged Congress to set aside areas of national scenic, historic, or scientific significance and to preserve them for all time for the benefit of all people. Millions of Americans each year enjoy the beauty and recreation afforded by the properties under the NPS, which was well established and expanded greatly under his administration. As inscribed on many plaques through the national parks in his honor, “There shall never come an end to the good he has done.”

Stephen Mather considered the father of the National Park System was the first Pugsley Gold Medal recipient in 1928.

Adapted from: Hartsoe, C, Sanders, D & Bridges, M (eds) (2009), Profiles in Leadership: Robert W. Crawford Recreation and Park Hall of Fame. National Recreation and Park Association and American Academy of Park and Recreation Administration.

  • Butler, G.D. (1965). Pioneers in public recreation. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing Company.
  • Crompton, J.L. (2007). Twentieth century champions of parks and conservation: The Pugsley award recipients 1928-1964. Volume I. Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing.
  • Ibrahim, H. (1989). Pioneers in leisure and recreation. Reston, VA: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance.
  • Tindall, B.S. (1971). “50 years—the origin and development of the national conference on state parks.” Parks & Recreation. 18-20.

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