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Stephen Mather: Secret Breakdown at the Dawn of the National Park Service

His depression interfered with his work to save the wilderness

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Stephen Mather went to the wilderness to heal the brainsickness that plagued him throughout his life. Ironically, his work to save America’s wilderness sent him into a depression that took him two years to pull out of.

Stephen Mather

Mather had a head full of ideas and enormous energy. He was brilliant, athletic, charming, generous and impulsive. From time to time he suffered what people then called a nervous breakdown, now called bipolar disorder. He broke down soon after the National Park Service came into existence in 1916. President Woodrow Wilson then appointed him director of the National Park Service.

But Mather’s loyal 27-year-old assistant, Horace Albright, secretly did the job for him for two years. That Mather served as the first National Park Service director in anything but name only is a fiction the park service keeps up to this day.

Horace Albright

Stephen Mather

Mather was born July 4, 1867, in San Francisco, but considered Connecticut home. He was part of an old, well-known New England family: the Mathers. A distant relative of Increase and Cotton Mather (as well as John Cotton), he eventually inherited a farmhouse in Darien that his great-grandfather, Deacon Joseph Moses Mather, built in 1778. His family spent summers there.

Stephen Tyng Mather home in Darien

Mather graduated from the University of California-Berkeley in 1887. He then worked for the New York Sun for five years, but moved to Chicago as sales manager for the Pacific Coast Borax Company. There he came up with the “20 Mule Team Borax” brand, still in use.

In 1903, Stephen Mather collapsed from overwork and stress. He took a vacation in the South for five weeks, which seemed to help. But every time he returned to work, his malaise and depression returned. He spent four months at a Wisconsin sanitarium, then a few more months at the seashore. It didn’t work. Finally his doctor told him to give up all work, and he took an eight-month trip to Europe. When he returned to his old job, he discovered the company had fired him.

He went off and started his own borax company with a partner in Chicago. They made a huge success of it and made a million dollars – a lot of money back then. Occasionally he showed signs of his old trouble, but he cured himself by going to the western wilderness – in 1906, 1912 and 1914.

The Dynamic Duo

During that long trip to Europe, Stephen Mather renewed his interest in nature and the outdoors. He returned to the U.S. a dedicated conservationist. Mather joined the Sierra Club, met John Muir, climbed Mount Rainier. He made enough money in the borax business to retire in 1914 and pursue his interest in conservation.

At the summit of Mount Rainier, 1888. Left to right: D.W. Bass, P. B. Van Trump, John Muir, N.O. Booth, Edward Sturgis Ingraham.

An apocryphal story has Stephen Mather writing a letter to Interior Secretary Franklin Lane. In it he complained about the exploitation of the national parks and the theft of parkland. Lane replied, “Dear Steve, If you don’t like the way the parks are being run, come on down to Washington and run them yourself.”

It never happened. Rather, a mutual friend of Lane and Mather suggested they meet in Chicago. They did, and Lane offered Mather the job of assistant secretary of the Interior.

Mather doubted he could do it. “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 in trouble before the job is an hour old.”

Lane said he’d give him Horace Albright — “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.”

They’re So Different

Mather said he’d take the job if Albright served as his assistant. Albright, also a UC-Berkeley graduate, felt an instant affinity for Mather and agreed. Mather sweetened the deal by supplementing Albright’s salary out of his own pocket.

As an old man, Albright recalled how he and Mather melded into an indivisible unit. They complemented each other beautifully. As Albright later wrote, “These fellas remind me of each other — they’re so different.”

Albright grew up poor in California and worked his way through college. He had a part-time job with economist Adolph Miller, who then accepted a position in Washington as assistant secretary of the Interior Department. Miller brought Albright with him. He soon moved on as one of the first governors of the Federal Reserve, but Albright stayed at Interior.

‘I’ll Buy It Myself’

Interior Secretary Franklin Lane wanted Stephen Mather to work on establishing an independent park service bureau. At the time, the national parks were a loose collection of properties run by the army or political hacks.

The parks suffered from neglect within the government, with no advocate within the administration, no budget, no rangers. The hotels, restaurants and sanitary facilities in the parks were abysmal, and the parks themselves were bedraggled and inaccessible to most people.

Yosemite National Park

Mather passionately wanted to create a National Park Service despite his reluctance to take a government job. Full of plans and ideas, he spent his own fortune to make his dream come true. He didn’t take a salary, and he hired a full-time publicist out of his own pocket. He spent thousands of his own dollars to buy the Tioga Road, which made Yosemite more accessible to the public. Once, in Glacier National Park, Mather got angry when he discovered the park headquarters were located three miles down a nearly impassable road from the railroad station.

The supervisor said all the land between the station and headquarters was owned privately. Mather said, “Well, if that’s the only problem, I’ll buy it myself.”

Glacier National Park

Stephen Mather Saves the Sequoias

Mather worked zealously to promote and preserve his parks. In 1915, the government created Sequoia National Park. Mather learned a large portion of the Giant Forest, containing the best of the giant sequoias, remained in private hands. The owners planned to build a summer resort.

Mather then held a two-week mountain party to with influential congressmen, wealthy businessmen and publishers.

Mr. Mather invited a number of wealthy Easterners to camp with him in the grove, explained the situation, and was

They rode mules and camped with comfort in the High Sierras. The mountain party promised enough money to buy the lands for the government.

Gilbert Grosvener, president of the National Geographic Society, came along. For the next century National Geographic magazine staunchly promoted the national parks.

NPS Employees, Directors The Mather Mountain Party of 1915 Mather seated at head of table (left). Albright in front of cook (Ty Sing). Image was redistributed by National Geographic.

Camping in Comfort

Mather brought along an accomplished cook, Ty Sing. He believed the parks would only attract tourists if they offered good food and comfortable accommodations, and Ty Sing drove home the point. The mountain party, for example, enjoyed a white-tablecloth banquet under the redwoods in the Giant Forest.

At the end of the party, Mather spoke to the group:

To each of you, to all of you, 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!

Sunset at Mather Point, Grand Canyon

Mather believed in the power of publicity to realize his dream. He wanted to create a grassroots system of support for the parks, and Congress would respond to public pressure to create and fund the National Park Service.

His publicist, Robert Yard, poured out articles and pamphlets about the parks’ breathtaking scenery. He extolled the beautiful alpine lakes of Glacier; the unbelievable blue of Crater Lake; Yellowstone’s wonderland of geysers, mountains and rivers on top of a supervolcano. The Grand Canyon wasn’t a national park yet, but Yard promoted it as well.

Geyser at Yellowstone National Park


On Aug. 25, 1916, President Wilson signed the bill creating the national park service into law. Shortly afterward, Albright noticed Stephen Mather began to act erratically. His moods suddenly changed. In one meeting, he poured forth wildly extravagant ideas. He ordered Albright to drop everything in Washington and meet him in Chicago. When Albright arrived, Mather asked him, “What are you doing in Chicago?”

Then, during a national conference on the park service that lasted several days, Mather went missing times. He was supposed to be running the conference. Finally, a few days afterward, Mather had dinner with friends at the Cosmos Club in Washington. He began to talk about his failures, threatened to leave the park service and then grew silent. His friends continued to talk, trying to cheer him up. But suddenly he put his head down on the table and began crying.

The Cosmos Club today

Albright got a call at 10:00 p.m. A friend of Mather’s, E.O. McCormick, was at the Cosmos Club, where Mather stayed while in Washington, D.C.

Albright wasn’t prepared for what he saw at the club.

His friends had taken Mather into a small reception room and closed the door against curious onlookers. Though loosely held by McCormick, he was rocking back and forth, alternately crying, moaning, and hoarsely trying to get something said. I couldn’t understand a thing. He was incoherent. His movements became more agitated while his voice rose. I feared he might hurt himself. As I was younger and stronger, I replace McCormick, holding him with both arms. Several us talked quietly to him, trying to soothe his wild mood, but to no avail. Suddenly he broke out of my hold, rushed for the door, and with an anguished cry, proclaimed he couldn’t live any longer feeling as he did.

They grabbed hold of him again, hustled him into a room and called for a doctor, who administered a sedative. Albright then called Jane Mather, his wife, who told him to take him to Dr. T.H. Weisenberg in Philadelphia.

The 1915 dedication of Rocky Mountain National Park; (l to r): Stephen Mather, Robert Yard, acting superintendent Trowbridge, NPS photographer Herford T. Cowling and Horace M. Albright.


Interior Secretary Lane told Albright to keep Mather’s illness quiet. He appointed Albright as acting director of the National Park Service, a placeholder until Mather could return. If he returned.

In 1917, treatment for mental illness involved isolation from the outside world, exercise, a healthy diet and exercise. No excitement, no problems. Mather’s doctor planned to slowly introduce him to the only thing that seemed to interest him, the national parks.

After two months, Albright went to see him – his first visitor. Mather was staying in a sunny Pennsylvania sanitarium. His room had only two pictures on the wall, of Yosemite National Park. Someone had removed the glass from the frames so Mather wouldn’t try suicide with it.  Albright found him better, but still fragile.

Back in Washington, Albright laid the foundation for the National Park Service. He hired qualified personnel and set policy on grazing  and digging for artifacts. Albright also worked to enlarge the parks and add new ones, including Zion, Grand Canyon and Acadia. He organized the park rangers and had uniforms designed for them. He made campground rules. All the while, Albright worked to keep commercial interests out of the parks.

United States – California – Sequoia National Park


Mather suddenly reappeared in Washington in November 1917, nearly a year after his breakdown. He announced he’d resume his old duties as National Parks director. His staff went along with him — sort of. They screened his calls, his mail, his visitors.

The doctor told Albright to let him play at being director. “Keep all the problems away from him while you do all the work,” the doctor ordered.

Fortunately, Mather got interested in saving the redwoods and stayed out west. Then in 1918 Mather inspected Mount Rainier. He spent the summer of 1918 in California, far away from the stress of Washington.

Zion Canyon at sunset in Zion National Park as seen from Angels Landing looking south.


Mather came back to Washington in January 1918. Albright had then taken a vacation to visit family in California when he got a telegram from the Interior Secretary. “You must return at once,” wrote Lane. “Matters here make it imperative.”

When Albright reached Washington, Lane told him Mather had gone into a check-writing frenzy.

“I’ve got a wild man on my hands,” Lane said. “You’re the only one who can handle him. Get him out of Washington.” Albright found Mather in a state of frenzied euphoria and extreme aggression.

Mather’s wife, back in Chicago, told Albright he’d been writing checks to political campaigns for thousands of dollars. Albright suggested they leave for Chicago so they could make plans in the heartland.

Mather agreed. Albright took him back to Chicago by train that night — a harrowing journey as Mather had produced a handful of razors from his luggage. Albright spent the night sharpening the razors at Mather’s direction. But they arrived safely in Chicago.

Mather didn’t come back to Washington for months. Friends and doctors found distractions for the troubled parks director.


By 1919, Mather had recovered enough to go back to his job as National Parks director. Albright, exhausted from overwork and with a wife and new baby in California, resigned as assistant. He took a job as superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.

Horace Albright with a friend in Yellowstone

Mather continued as park director for a decade, calling on Albright to troubleshoot from time to time. He resigned in 1929 due to his health. and Horace Albright returned to Washington as the second National Park Service director.

With thanks to Creating the National Park Service: The Missing Years by Horace M. Albright and Marian Albright Schenck.

Images: Yellowstone National Park Ken Lunnd via Flickr, CC by-SA 2.0; Yosemite by Koshy Koshy via Flickr, CC by 2.0. Mount Rainier By Walter Siegmund (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6218147. Mount Rainier By Walter Siegmund (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6218147. Sequoia By World Wide Gifts – Flickr: United States – California – Sequoia National Park, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27956333. Zion CanyonBy Diliff – taken by Diliff, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=305224. Grand Canyon by Grand Canyon National Park via Flickr, .CC By 2.0.

This story was updated in 2023.

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