The Birth of the National Park Service: The Founding Years, 1913-33

This is a book I wish I had read many years ago. Told by Horace M. Albright not long before his death, it’s a recounting of the establishment years of the National Park Service told by one of the two men who literally created it and rightfully became legends in its history.

It’s hard to imagine what our national parks would have become without the vision and guidance of Stephen Tyng Mather and Horace Marden Albright. And had it not been for efforts by writer Robert Cahn who persuaded Mr. Albright to share his personal memories before it was too late, this would have been a story never told.

As one long interested in national parks and the Service that runs them, I thought I was quite knowledgeable of NPS history. But from the moment I opened this book’s cover, I knew I was not after all. Here is the fascinating tale of political infighting, intrigue, intense power plays and the overriding guiding vision of two men who worked tirelessly and at great personal sacrifice to bring national parks as we know them into existence.

Mr. Mather donated much of his fortune toward his dreams and Mr. Albright set aside a legal career. In the end, however, it seems clear that Mr. Albright’s contributions to this story were actually greater than those of Mr. Mather because of Mr. Mather’s illnesses and the greater length of Mr. Albright’s service.

Mr. Albright makes no secret of his self doubts throughout his time as a founding father. His admiration and loyalty to Steve Mather led to the hard work and drive that allowed him to become Mr. Mather’s greatest asset as they literally invented the new National Park Service.

Facing down powerful political interests and opponents who had enormous financial or political stakes in opposing development of national parks and monuments (including the U.S. Forest Service), Mr. Mather and Mr. Albright managed to win a long battle to ensure that our parklands would remain at least relatively free of interference and open to all American — and world — citizens.

Much of what they faced in the 20 formative years of the service are still lurking out there today. Opponents now have different names, but their reasons for opposition remain largely unchanged.

In the final chapter we find Horace Albright’s farewell letter to the Park Service. We all need to read it. It’s as true and poignant now as it was then. And it points out the need for eternal vigilance by those who love our parks as new threats rise against them. Thank goodness there have been more men and women like Mather and Albright ready to stand up to people like Paul Hoffman and Dick Cheney.

I was surprised to learn that some of those most helpful to preserving our national parks were men like U.S. Sen. Reed Smoot of Utah – my own home now where many of those in power these days seem determined to undermine all Mr. Mather and Mr. Albright and others since them fought so hard to accomplish.

There is no point in trying to quote any portions of the book. It needs to be read and not quoted. But throughout my reading, I found myself again and again having some of those “Ah, hah!” moments that come when a long held but partially understood concept suddenly becomes clear.

Not only is this the tale of the creation of the National Park Service, it’s also a story that will transport a reader back in time. Back to a time when automobiles were brand new and even a visionary like Horace Albright would confess that he’d thought an idea expressed by Orville Wright – that someday visitors to parks would arrive not only by rail and automobile, but airplane as well – was simply absurd. It will help many readers understand reasons for decisions and actions long ago that we today regard as terrible errors.

Readers travel along on pack trips with kings and crown princes; fishing expeditions with presidents and millionaires, and with Mr. Mather and Mr. Albright as they explored land destined to become parks and monuments. Throughout the book are woven stories of contributions by Mr. Albright’s wife, Grace, and of times when the future of parks teetered on the outcome of some small detail or conversation. I was aware of financial contributions made by Mr. Mather in the early days, but had only an incomplete grasp of the enormous generosity of the man.

I also had been aware that Mr. Mather had suffered from bouts of depression, but had no real understanding of their intensity. It was Mr. Albright who stepped in repeatedly to keep the fledgling Service moving while Mr. Mather was incapacitated. This is a story of two men who were thrust together almost by accident (or was it destiny?), and who became a team that started with Secretary of Interior Franklin Lane’s legendary challenge to Mr. Mather, “Well, Steve, if you don’t like the way the parks are being run, why don’t you come to Washington and run them yourself?”

It ended 20 years later after they had managed to build the National Park Service into a strong and respected agency entrusted with some of the world’s most priceless places.

Mr. Albright’s accounts of his intimacy with people like John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Herbert Hoover, and even Silent Cal Coolidge are fascinating. Here was a young man – only in his early 20s when he started and just 30 when he became superintendent of Yellowstone – who was able to cajole and persuade and argue successfully with some of the world’s most powerful men of the time. And as he did, he shaped indelibly the new government agency he was creating.

Through the entire book runs the thread of Mr. Albright’s vision for park in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and of the maneuvering required to accomplish establishment of what is now Grand Teton National Park. It’s a story of how a president of the United States saw a vision of a road along a mountain ridge that became Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. It’s a story of victories and defeats, all of which still play parts in our national park heritage.

As I read, I came to a much greater understanding of things I had learned when I was privileged to wear the NPS uniform. Mr. Albright tells of his vision for setting high standards for everyone who wore the uniform then – standards that still stand today. His words help us become better acquainted with other Park Service legends such as Arno Camerer, Roger Toll, George Wright, and many others including Secretaries of Interior Harold Ikes and Franklin Lane.

It’s the story of a man so dedicated to his work that once while visiting Mt. McKinley, when he’d been stricken by appendicitis, instead of allowing himself to be flown out immediately, he’d directed the pilot to fly over a chunk of land being considered for addition to the park so he could get a good look. Only then could he be flown to Fairbanks for surgery.

All in all, a fascinating story. One that really is required reading for anyone with an interest in our national parks and the service that preserves them for all of us. It’s not a newly published book, but one I discovered while prowling through my county library’s shelves. One I think needs to be shared with others who may not have discovered it yet.

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See also: Preserving the Living Past: Legacy of John C. Merriam by
Stephen R. Mark, in learning J.C. Merriam's role in the early visitor
educational programs of the NPS.
From his efforts to protect California's wild lands—including the state's majestic redwoods and its dynamic coastline—to his novel ideas about the educational and inspirational value of wilderness that continue to provoke debates to this day, this first biography of John C. Merriam (1869-1945) tells the story of the prominent paleontologist who became a visionary in the American conservation movement.