They were the dynamic duo. This is the story of the real life “Batman & Robin” and their battle to create a unified system of national parks.
Stephen Mather & Horace Albright are the two names every national park enthusiast should know.
HOLY CAMPSITE! This is the incredible story of two crusaders without capes. Their Gotham City was a series of wilderness wonderlands in need of assistance. Instead of doing battle with the Joker, Riddler, Penguin or Catwoman, these capeless crusaders fought to create, promote, preserve and protect an amazing collection of national parks. Have you guessed it?
ARRGH! They fought against those who would use the parks to enrich themselves.
KAPOW! They fought for a National Park Service so visitors would have an exceptional experience no matter where they went.
POWIE! They fought for a elite cadre of public lands professionals.
WHAP! As a result of this dynamic duo, the National Park System we know today exists.
Do you know who we’re talking about?
This article is part of our ongoing Environmental Heroes Series. So far we’ve chronicled legends like Jimmy Carter, Rachel Carson, George Bird Grinnell, Stephen Mather, & we’re only just getting started!
Stephen Mather & Horace Albright | The Real Life Batman & Robin of the National Parks
The Millionaire Turned Do-Gooder, Stephen Mather
Stephen Tyng Mather: BAM! Take a look at his background. See similarities to Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent? As The Mather Homestead reports:
“Mather was a successful industrialist who started his career as a reporter with the New York Sun. After five years, he joined the Pacific Coast Borax Company in New York where his father worked. In 1894, he and his wife, Jane Floy Mather, moved to Chicago with Borax. He is credited with coining the slogan “20 Mule Team Borax” which branded the commodity and made Borax a household name. In 1903, he created the Thorkildsen-Mather Borax Company. By 1914, Mather was a millionaire. This gave him the flexibility to pursue other interests.”
John Muir’s Influence on Stephen Mather
BANG! Instead of fighting for truth, justice and the American way, Mather fought to preserve the wilderness around him. As a young man, he had fallen in love with the mountains of his native California.
He became active in his state’s Sierra Club. In 1912, he met the legendary conservationist John Muir. Muir’s battle to protect America’s wilderness had a big impact on Stephen Mather. He decided this was a fight he wanted to join too.
Catching The Eye of Interior
BOFF! Mather’s growing passion for conservation and his willingness to fight the good fight took him to Washington D.C. where he came to the attention of the Secretary of the Interior, Franklin Lane.
Lane wanted someone to create a system of national parks. He believed Mather was just the man for the job.
BONK! Lane arranged a meeting with Mather. Impressed with his convictions and his passion, he would ask Mather to run the Bureau of Parks. Mather, however, doubted his fitness for government work.
He raised objections. To reassure him, Lane introduced Mather to the man who would become his partner in this great endeavor And, the dynamic duo would soon be born.
Batman, Meet Robin – Mather, Meet Albright
CLASH! In Creating The National Park Service, Horace Albright writes:
“Mather had his lingering doubts. ‘This is all so very new to me. I have never been under restrictions or a lot of regulations. I’m just not temperamentally fitted for this type of work in Washington.’ I’ll probably get into trouble before the job is an hour old.’
Lane replied: ‘I’ll give you a young fellow who knows the ropes and who’ll handle the legal and other troubles you’ll run into. He’s the man to keep you out of trouble, someone who knows the department, can handle the routine administrative work and–wonder of wonder–a fellow university graduate.'”
Horace Albright | A Hardscrabble Youth
CRASH! Like Dick Grayson, Horace Albright would come to see his mentor and partner as a father figure. Unlike Dick, he did not grow up as a circus performer.
Albright came of age in the Owens Valley of California. His parents struggled financially to make ends meet. They instilled in their young son a strong work ethic, which he put to work for the people of America.
CRRAACK! From an early age, Horace Albright knew he would have to pay his own way in life. He worked a series of jobs to earn money for a college education.
Unable to secure a coveted position at West Point, he attended the University of California instead. As disappointed as he was, Albright found a different way to serve his country.
Horace Albright Heads to Washington
EEE-YOW! Upon graduation, Albright was approached by Adolph Miller. Miller had been a good friend from his college days. He offered Alrbight an opportunity to go to Washington.
The job was in the new administration of President Woodrow Wilson as an assistant to Franklin Lane. Miller asked his friend to come along as his assistant. Albright agreed. That decision would change his life.
Bringing Order Out Of Chaos | Stephen Mather & Horace Albright
KAPOW! Gotham City was a place in dire need of a savior when Bruce Wayne teamed up with Dick Grayson. Together, the dynamic duo resolved to bring order out of the chaos. A different kind of chaos confronted Mather and Albright when they began their historic partnership.
KER-SPLOOSH! As Albright writes in Creating The National Park Service:
“One of the first things the new partnership of Mather and Albright faced was park administration. A lot of Mather’s criticism to Lane had been about the miserable conditions in the national parks, he had visited, not just the rundown physical aspects, but the dirty, unhealthy conditions of lodging, food, and sanitary facilities. He blamed most of these on the men in charge of the parks.”
Too Many Political Appointees
KERPLOP! Mather and Albright discovered a second, but related problem. It was the personnel running these parks. Most of them were political appointees. They viewed their jobs as a reward for backing the right candidate.
Rather than consider what would be in the best interests of the people, they were motivated by self-interest. These folks were always on the lookout for any opportunity which benefited them personally.
Lack Of Public Awareness
KRUNCH! A third problem was the lack of public interest or awareness of these wonderful places. In order to build support for a National Park Service and a unified management system, Mather had to educate the public as to why these places mattered.
If the public understood the benefits of traveling to America’s parks then Stephen Mather was convinced he could get a bill through Congress creating a National Park Service. He was confident he could get adequate funding to eradicate the deplorable conditions he had seen.
And, he could train a dedicated group of public servants who would effectively supervise these parks.
A Generosity Of Spirit | Stephen Mather & Horace Albright
OOOOFF! There’s a wonderful story. After parking the Batmobile, Batman jumps out of the car and reaches into his utility belt for a coin so he can pay the parking meter. Robin points out that no one is going to give the Batmobile a ticket.
Realizing this was a teachable moment, Batman turns to the Boy Wonder and says, “This Money Goes Towards Building Better Roads, We All Must Do Our Part.”
Bruce Wayne & Stephen Mather | Made Of Similar Stuff
OUCH! Stephen Mather was made of similar stuff. He, too, believed that we must all do our part. He didn’t take a salary. Wealthy people, who have gone into government service, often don’t take salaries. But Mather had a generosity of spirit which went much further.
Without any public fanfare, time and time again, he dug into his own pockets to hire people, help people, purchase access to public lands for the American people and find other ways to give back.
Mather wanted to make his dream of a National Park Service a reality. He was willing to spend money out of his own pocket to achieve this goal. Not for himself, but the general public. And, he never publicized any of these actions.
A Cash-Strapped Boy Wonder
OWWW! Horace Albright couldn’t afford to remain with Stephen Mather on an assistant’s salary. He wanted to get married and have a family. This is not an unreasonable thing for any man to want.
Mather solved his problem by supplementing Albright’s salary. Rather than a “hand out,” Mather gave Albright a “hand up.” The Department of the Interior didn’t lose a valued employee and Mather didn’t lose his “right-hand” man.
“Well, If That’s The Only Problem, I’ll Buy It Myself”
PLOP! Albright tells one story which is particularly poignant:
“Right away, Mather became agitated and unusually upset when he inspected the park headquarters, which was at the end of a terrible road. He stamped his feet and said that this situation would never do.
Poor Samuel Ralston, the supervisor of Glacier, tried to explain that all the land between the railroad and the lake, about three miles plus the shoreline, with a good road through it, was privately owned. Mather instantly quieted down and said, ‘Well, if that’s the only problem, I’ll buy it myself.'”
He did. And, he gave it to the government for the enjoyment of all its people.
Mather Builds A Public Relations Department | Stephen Mather & Horace Albright
POW! Mather would hire a full-time publicist, Robert Sterling Yard, to help publicize the need for an independent national park agency. Since the Department of the Interior had no money to pay Yard’s salary, Mather would pay it out of his own pocket.
Yard worked to promote the national parks and to educate Americans about their use. He would call these places “America’s masterpieces,” and work to create high standards for the selection of future national park sites.
Part of Mather’s particular genius lay in his newspaper and public relations background. What good would it do to have all of these wonderful places if people didn’t know about them.
By enlisting support among influential businessmen and journalists, Mather publicized these national treasures. And, by publicizing them, he built political support for a system of national parks.
The Mather Mountain Party | Stephen Mather & Horace Albright
POWIE! Stephen Mather understood that, if he was going to get Congress to create a unified park system, he needed to build support for it among influential people.
To dramatize the terrible conditions of these parks while also showcasing their incredible beauty, Mather invited businessmen, congressmen, editors and publishers to accompany him on a mountain party. It became known as the Mather Mountain Party.
Mather Enlists The Support Of The National Geographic
RIP! The Mather Mountain Party was a two-week trek which proved instrumental in building necessary support for the creation of a National Park Service. Among its participants was Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor.
He was the full time editor of the National Geographic. Grosvenor, considered the father of photojournalism, built the National Geographic into one of the most influential magazines of its day.
Becoming A True Believer | Stephen Mather & Horace Albright
SOCK! Mather knew he had to win Grosvenor over to his side. According to National Park Service historian Walter Bielenberg, Mather’s Mountain Park made a true believer out of Grosvenor.
“He was so overwhelmed by the grandeur of the High Sierras and his experiences on the trip that he became a long-time friend of Mather and the national parks.”
Battling The Selfish Interests | Stephen Mather & Horace Albright
SPLATT! As their two week journey came to an end, Stephen Mather said a few words of farewell to the group. Horace Albright writes:
“Mather would tell the group, ‘Unless we can protect the areas currently held with a separate government agency we may lose them to selfish interests. And, we need this bureau to enhance and enlarge our public lands, to preserve infinitely more for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.'”
Present At The Creation | Stephen Mather & Horace Albright
SPLOOSH! As Horace Alrbight notes, “Getting the national park bill through Congress was a thankless job.” It was 1916 and voters were preparing to go to the polls. While Woodrow Wilson was campaigning for reelection, Europe was entering its third year of a bloody conflagration.
Wilson was politically vulnerable and Republicans were sensing victory. For Stephen Mather and Horace Albright, a change of administrations at this pivotal juncture could doom their dream of a National Park Service. They knew it was now or never.
Turning Up The Political Pressure | Stephen Mather & Horace Albright
SWAAP! Stephen Mather’s friends and supporters turned up the political pressure with a flood of publicity in support of a national park service. Gilbert Grosvenor devoted National Geographic’s April issue to the wonders of America with special emphasis and attention on the national parks.
While Mather remained in the West, Albright worked with wavering senators and congressmen to address their concerns and ensure their support.
SWISH! On August 15, the Senate accepted a compromise bill on the parks. Seven days later, the House also passed the bill. Now, all Mather and Albright needed, was the President’s signature. As Albright recounts:
“I found the enrolling clerk and inquired when the bill would be sent to the president for his signature. He didn’t know. Just then the telephone rang. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but my antenna must have been up because I heard him repeat: ‘Yes sir. The president wants the army appropriation bill right away for his signature. I’ll get it ready and send it down immediately.'”
Birth Of The National Park System | Stephen Mather & Horace Albright
SWOOSH! Sensing an opportunity, Albright persuaded the clerk to put the national park bill in the same envelope. His plan worked. President Wilson signed both bills. On August 25, 1916, the National Park System was born.
The Dark Knight
THUNK! Batman (a.k.a. the Dark Knight) operated in a gray area between the worlds of right and wrong. His methods often justified his actions. Psychiatrists speculate that his serious temperament and profound sense of guilt over the death of his parents could be construed as signs of depression.
THWACK! Stephen Mather also suffered from depression. As his trusted deputy Horace Albright recounts:
“It was a tragic story of this brilliant, creative, and successful man who was burdened with a mental condition that could burst upon him, without warning, when fatigue and stress mounted. In the light of contemporary knowledge, his condition might be labeled manic depression.”
First Director Of The National Park System
THWAPP! Mather would have a breakdown in 1917. His family and friends would seek treatment. Despite this setback, Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane would appoint Mather to be the first director of the new National Park Service.
Horace Albright would be appointed as his assistant director. It would be up to Albright, however, to serve as acting director while Mather recuperated.
What Would Stephen Mather Do
UGGH! As he confronted the challenges of this fledgling service, Horace Albright, only in his mid-twenties, but considered a “boy wonder” by many, often asked himself: “What would Stephen Mather do?”
Confronting An Old Adversary | Stephen Mather & Horace Albright
VRONK! Before the National Park Service came into existence, Albright had to confront the problem of commercial farmers, cattlemen and sheep herders using the national parks for grazing their livestock.
During the First World War, Secretary Lane was under tremendous political pressure to allow grazing on these lands. It was deemed important and necessary to the war effort. Proponents framed it as a question of feeding the troops versus protecting the grasslands.
The Foremost Problem Facing the Park Service
WHACK! Horace Albright, who was running the National Park Service while Mather recovered, realized that allowing livestock to graze on park lands would decimate those lands. He concluded:
“The foremost problem facing the Park Service in the early months was a concerted effort by certain interests to make adverse use of the parks, excusing it as patriotism, but, in reality, attempting to open them once and for all for commercial and money-making projects alien to the Park Service’s organic act. Since the entry of the United States into the European conflict, this harassment had never let up.”
An Unlikely Ally | Stephen Mather & Horace Albright
WHAMM! Horace Albright found an unlikely ally in Herbert Hoover. Hoover, who oversaw Food Administration during World War One, stood with the Department of the Interior.
Hoover refused all requests to allow grazing on park lands. The combined actions of Hoover and Albright thwarted the efforts of those who wanted to open up these lands for commercial activities.
Leaving A Legacy | Stephen Mather & Horace Albright
WHAP! Stephen Mather returned to Washington D.C. to resume his duties as Director of the National Park Service after the end of World War One. He would remain there until 1929.
During this time, he created a professional civil service organization for the selection of park officials, increased the numbers of parks and national monuments within the system and established criteria and standards for adding new properties to the national park system.
Albright Succeeds Mather
ZAM! And, what of the Boy Wonder you might ask? Horace Albright had served as Mather’s loyal assistant and deputy director. During Mather’s illness, he had run the agency.
Now, he was ready to spring his wings. [Or, should I say spread his cape?] Albright would accept the position of superintendent of Yellowstone National Park on July 1, 1919. While he would leave Washington, Horace Albright would continue to work with Stephen Mather whenever his boss needed his help.
Ten years later, Mather ended his illustrious park service career. Who would replace him? Why Horace Albright of course! He would succeed Stephen Mather as the second director of the NPS . He held that post from January 12, 1929 until August 9, 1933.
Together, They Transformed The National Park Service
ZAP! Together, Stephen Mather and Horace Albright transformed the National Park Service. They provided the necessary infrastructure and updated park facilities so millions of visitors could enjoy these magical places year after year.
Mather and Albright professionalized the park service by replacing political appointees with men (and later women) who were selected strictly on the basis of merit. They built public support for the idea of a unified system of national parks to ensure Congress would adequately fund these important lands during the difficult years ahead.
The Legacy of Stephen Mather & Horace Albright | We Must All Do Our Part
ZOWIE! Mather and Albright established a mission statement for the new park service. At its core, it reflected the idea that the national interest must always dictate all decisions affecting public or private enterprise within these parks.
And, for Mather and Albright, this would mean the parks and everything inside of them, including all of the amazing wildlife and natural wonders, would be preserved and protected for generations yet to come. Stephen Mather and Horace Albright infused the men and women who followed them with this same spirit of dedication to serving the greater good.
For, as Batman had once reminded Robin, “We All Must Do Our Part.” HOLY LEGACY!
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That’s a wrap! If you enjoyed this article I recommend our ongoing Environmental Heroes Series. So far we’ve chronicled legends like Jimmy Carter, Rachel Carson, George Bird Grinnell, Stephen Mather, & we’re only just getting started!
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