Ken Burns Classroom

Stephen Mather

Ken Burns Film: The National Parks

Collections: Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 6-12

Stephen Mather
Stephen Mather, a millionaire businssman, mobilized public support in 1916 for creation of a new agency, the National Park Service, whose sole responsibility would be protecting the parks. He then became its first director and molded the haphazard collection of parks into a cohesive system. Noted for his enthusiasm and energy, Mather was also prone to crippling bouts of depression. He sought solace in the parks. Source: Harper’s Ferry Center, Historic Photo Collection.


Stephen Mather was the first director of the National Park Service. He used his wealth and political connections to take the national park idea in important new directions. Mather’s love of the parks was highly personal: he had found that time in nature helped him ward off the bouts of depression to which he was prone.

Born in California to a family with deep, patrician roots in New England, Mather graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, worked as a reporter for the New York Sun, and then served as sales manager for the Pacific Coast Borax Company, where he demonstrated his special genius for promotion.

He branded the product as 20 Mule Team Borax and inventively created so much publicity that sales skyrocketed. Mather then helped start a competing borax company and soon became rich beyond belief. But by 1914, at age 47, the self-made millionaire was restless for a new challenge.

Mather counted as one of the highlights of his life meeting the legendary John Muir on a hike in Sequoia National Park in 1912. When he visited Sequoia and >Yosemite in the summer of 1914, Mather was disgusted by the poor condition of the parks. He wrote a letter of complaint to his college friend, Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, who invited Mather to come to Washington and do something about it himself. Mather accepted the challenge. As assistant to Lane in charge of the parks, he began a crusade to mold a haphazard collection of national parks into a cohesive system and to create a federal agency solely devoted to them: the National Park Service.

Mather took on staff, paying their salaries out of his own pocket, and began a public relations and political lobbying campaign to build awareness of the parks and increase their size and number. He raised funds from his wealthy friends to purchase new park lands, and he often purchased land himself and donated it to the National Park Service for protection. He joined forces with the budding automotive industry to “democratize” the parks by making them more accessible to a broader cross-section of Americans. He and his assistant, Horace Albright, professionalized the corps of superintendents and rangers in the parks.

Mather’s love of the parks was highly personal: he had found that time in nature helped him ward off the bouts of depression to which he was prone. During his tenure as NPS
director, he suffered several severe depressions, requiring hospitalization. Albright quietly filled in without revealing the reasons for Mather’s absence.

Upon Mather’s death, the Park Service erected bronze plaques in every park with the words: “There will never come an end to the good that he has done.”

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